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Ultimate Guide to Francis Ford Coppola and His Directing Techniques

EARLY WORKS (1962)

Few figures in the world of cinema cast a shadow as long as Francis Ford Coppola’s.  He’s a giant of the art form, with a handful of movies that have redefined film as we know it.  His inherent genius, which has cost him considerable grief throughout his career, is abundant enough to be passed down to his offspring.

Indeed, the Coppola family dynasty is something of a phenomenon– there’s his daughter, indie darling Sofia Coppola, as well as his filmmaker son Roman (and that’s not even counting more distant family like Jason Schwartzman or Nicolas Cage).  His recent films may only have a fraction of the power of his early work, but Coppola’s place in the annals of cinema history is undeniable.

Born in Detroit, but raised in New York City, Coppola found his love for film by way of the theatre.  Suffering from polio during his childhood, Coppola entertained himself by putting on puppet shows and dabbling with the family’s 8mm film camera.  This led to substantial training in music and theater, capped by a bachelor’s degree from Hofstra University.

It wasn’t until he enrolled in graduate school at UCLA that he began formally studying film.  Influenced by the works of Elia Kazan and Sergei Eisenstein, Coppola was a member of the earliest wave of directors to directly benefit from a dedicated filmmaking program.  It was during this time that Coppola cut his teeth with shorts like THE TWO CHRISTOPHERS and AYAMONN THE TERRIBLE.

What’s interesting about the beginnings of Coppola’s career is that his work found wide distribution before he even graduated.  A full five years before he earned his graduate degree from UCLA, Coppola had already made several feature-length films.  Some of these have been lost to time, such as his first work– 1962’s TONIGHT FOR SURE– a softcore comedy meant to titillate rather than entertain.

THE BELLBOY AND THE PLAYGIRLS (1962)

His next work, however, exists in bits and pieces around the internet.  Also shot in 1962, THE BELLBOY AND THE PLAYGIRLS was more of an editing job than a directing one.  However, recutting and adding new footage to German director Fritz Umgelter’s film MIT EVA FING DIE SUNDE AN earned him a full director’s credit.

The film, shot in black and white, was yet another stag/nudie comedy.  The only clip I’ve been able to find, presented above, makes no mention of whether the footage belongs to Coppola or Umgelter.  It doesn’t appear to be dubbed, so for the sake of this article I’ll assume it’s Coppola’s.

This brief snippet shows an intimate scene between newlyweds, as the husband tries to cajole his timid new wife into sex.  Coppola shoots wide and straight-on, capturing the action dispassionately until we pull back to reveal that these characters are actually actors rehearsing for a play.

It’s a playful move on Coppola’s part to deceive us using only the boundaries of the frame– an effective trick that hints at Coppola’s budding desires to challenge convention and redefine the language of cinema.

BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN (1962)

That same year, Coppola found work as an assistant to legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman.  Coppola’s first task under Corman was a daunting one: westernize an existing Soviet sci-fi film entitled NEBO ZOVYOT for American audiences.

Coppola’s take on the material, subsequently retitled BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN, became a schlocky monster film, albeit one with the conviction and resourcefulness of a young director with something to prove.

BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN (presented above in its entirety) concerns a space race between a unified Earth’s two latitudinal hemispheres, set in a then-future 1997.  Which is hilarious, by the way.  When the South Hemis nation attempts to beat the North to Mars and crash-lands on a nearby moon, the two powers must work together and fend off vicious space monsters so they can return to Earth safely.

This film is probably the epitome of Eisenhower-era B-movie cheese.  Spacecraft models and props are janky, special effects are laughable, and the limited understanding of actual space travel is preciously quaint.  However, it is surprisingly watchable, if only for the glimpses of Coppola’s earliest directorial choices.

His largest contribution to the film, besides the dubbing over of dialogue with American actors, was to inject a space monster battle midway through the film.  Long before Ridley Scott made the sexualization of aliens cool in ALIEN (1979), Coppola crafted his dueling monsters to resemble vaginas and penises.  This was a common characteristic of the lurid films that Corman produced, all of which were churned out rapidly and cheaply to maximize profit.

Ultimately, these films aren’t reliable indicators of Coppola’s growth as a filmmaker.  Put simply, they’re glorified editing jobs where Coppola got to re-conceptualize an existing film and conform his edit accordingly.  However, they’re fascinating looks into how film school students gained experience in the early days of the institution, when the costly nature of celluloid prompted experience gained via unconventional avenues.

Coppola’s work with Corman would eventually lead to the making and distribution of his first, true feature film.  His early works served as important stepping-stones on that path, and now they serve as assurance for up-and-coming filmmakers that even the greats had to start somewhere.


DEMENTIA 13 (1963)

In 1963, director Francis Ford Coppola was deep into his apprenticeship with schlock mogul Roger Corman.  That year also found Coppola in Ireland, working as the sound man for Corman’s feature THE YOUNG RACERS.  When filming was finished, Corman found that he had a substantial amount of money leftover in the budget.

He may not have been a great film director, but Corman was undoubtedly a shrewd businessman, and he saw an opportunity to invest that money in Coppola’s untapped talent.

Corman gave the money to Coppola, with an assignment to stay behind in Ireland with a few of THE YOUNG RACERS’ cast members and make a low-budget horror film in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960).  Coppola responded to the challenge with DEMENTIA 13, his first true feature film of his own making.

While today the film comes off as understandably dated, low-budget and schlocky, it also offers a captivating insight into the mindset of a young, hungry director who would go on to become one of the greats.

The story of DEMENTIA 13 is well-rooted in classical and cliche horror-tropes.  When her husband unexpectedly dies of a heart attack during a late-night boating excursion, Louise Haloran (Luan Anders) unceremoniously dumps his body overboard and heads to his family’s ancestral home in Ireland.

  Acting under the guise that her husband is still alive and absent on a business trip, she maneuvers to get written into his mother’s will so she can cut out with a hefty portion of the family’s wealth.  What she doesn’t count on, however, are the meddlings of her husband’s two brothers (William Campbell and Bart Patton), their macabre obsession with their deceased sister Kathleen, and a mysterious axe murderer stalking the grounds.

Despite DEMENTIA 13’s campy, trashy roots, the cast seems to be aware that they’re working with a great director, accordingly giving themselves over entirely to their performances.  Anders is the archetypal Hitchcock blonde at the center of the story, and her shrewd, calculating ways aren’t as off-putting as they are lurid and compelling.

Campbell and Patton are the brothers to Louise’s dead husband, and they embody stubborn conviction and haunted torment, respectively.  Veteran character actor Patrick Magee delivers a standout performance as Justin Caleb, the family doctor whose gruff mentality raises questions about his true intentions within the story.

DEMENTIA 13 is positioned as a slasher film, but it also dabbles in the murder mystery genre by giving us a gallery of characters with their own potentially-murderous motivations.  Due to the speed in which Coppola wrote the screenplay, the identity of the murderer is easily deduced about halfway through the film– which doesn’t make for much in the way of suspense.

However, the pure excellence of Coppola’s craft, even at this early, low-budget stage, is undeniable.  DEMENTIA 13 is absolutely the kind of film that shouldn’t hold up fifty years after its release, but there’s a small, palpable aura of prestige that lingers over it.  Yes, it’s shlock, but it’s the kind of schlock you might find given a reverent release by the Criterion Collection.

Coppola’s camerawork is simplistic, belying the shoestring nature of the production.  However, its minimalism draw inspiration from classical filmmaking techniques that give the film a timeless feel.  This low-key approach amplifies the few stylistic flourishes peppered throughout;  the opening high-angle shot looking down on a rowboat bobbing in the lake, as well as the floating, dreamlike nature of the underwater photography come to mind.

As lensed by Director of Photography Charles Hannawalt, the 35mm film image uses the low-budget necessity of the black-and-white format to its advantage.  The contrast is crisp and moody, alternating between naturalistic and high-key lighting scenarios as needed.  A vicious knifing sequence halfway through the film uses rapid-fire edits to create disorientation and a sheer sense of terror.

The homage is so apparent that it matches PYSCHO’s infamous shower murder scene shot-for-shot.  This doesn’t read so much as Coppola trying to rip off Hitchock as it does as an example of Corman’s business model for deliberately emulating successful films in his cheap knock-offs.  The same practice still exists today, most notably in “masterpieces” like SNAKES ON A TRAIN,  churned out monthly by cheap production companies like The Asylum.

The music of DEMENTIA 13, provided by Ronald Stein, is appropriately gothic and mysterious.  It’s traditional in that it’s composed like most orchestral scores of its day, but Coppola’s rebelliousness as a young filmmaker gets another chance to shine with the sly inclusion of diagetic rockabilly music.  Using prerecorded source tracks may be commonplace in films now, but In the early 60’s, it was virtually unheard of.

The practice didn’t really gain steam until a generation of film brats like Coppola, George Lucas, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese adopted it as an aesthetic trademark.

As a low-budget genre/exploitation film, DEMENTIA 13 doesn’t give us much in the way of a personal insight into Coppola’s psyche or development as a filmmaker.  While it trades heavily in the tropes of schlock cinema, such as weak acting and easily-corrected inconsistencies (if the film takes place in Ireland, how come nobody is actually Irish?), it also carries a great deal of pathos and understated style.

It might seem dated by today’s standards, but I was surprised to find how effective DEMENTIA 13 was as an old school chiller.  Its gothic iconography has considerable spooky charm, and it’s easily one of the better films within Corman’s extensive library.  But most of all, it’s a solidly-constructed first effort from a blossoming filmmaker (who was still in film school, to boot) who was on the verge of shaking up the entire art form.


YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW (1966)

It’s an inarguable fact that director Francis Ford Coppola benefited greatly from the nascent days of the film school institution.  Making a film wasn’t as commonplace as it was now– back in the 60’s, your film was remarkable for the fact that you even made it.

Coppola was a different force altogether– before he had finished his master’s degree at UCLA, he already had the successfully-released features DEMENTIA 13 (1963) and BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN (1962) under his belt.

In order to graduate, Coppola needed to complete his master’s thesis film.  Naturally, he crafted the most ambitious student film ever, a feat unmatched even by today’s standards.  This effort was 1966’s YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW, a feature adaptation of the David Benedictus novel.

Shot for the obscene sum of $800,000, Coppola’s little “student film” eventually premiered in competition at Cannes, secured distribution with Warner Brothers, and netted an Academy Award nomination for supporting actress Geraldine Page.  If this were to happen to a student filmmaker today, he’d be hailed as the second coming of Christ– but for Coppola, this was only a taste of things to come.

YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW tells the story of Bernard Chanticleer (Peter Kastner), a bookish, virginal young man who works in his father’s library in New York.  HIs mother Margery (Geraldine Page), sets him up with an apartment in the city but aggressively warns him about the dangers and evils of women.  Now living on his own for the first time, the sheltered young man’s eyes are opened to a whole world of sexuality and danger.

He begins dating the sweet Amy Partlett (Karen Black), but he quickly finds he can’t help himself when a beautiful, glamorous go-go dancer (Elizabeth Hartman) shows interest in him as well.  Caught between Mrs. Right and Mrs. Right Now (I hate that I just wrote that), Bernard learns that there’s a lot more to love than sex.

The performances are appropriately outsized to match the comedic, absurd plot developments, but they also traffic heavily in a rebelliousness that lends the film a countercultural quality.  The dynamics between the excitable Kastner and the seductive Hartman are well-drawn, if not a little cliche.

Kastner does an admirable job as the lead, delivering a performance reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in THE GRADUATE (1967)– despite the fact that he had never seen it himself (THE GRADUATE was still a year away from release).   Hartman’s character of Barbara Darling is distant and cold, completely unaware of the psychological damage she inflicts on her suitors.  She fully embodies the weaponized sexuality that was an unintended product of the free love era.

Page’s Oscar-nominated performance is quite funny, if not entirely memorable.  Her conviction that girls are the devil is a well-worn character trait, but she performs the role with a fresh urgency.  Torn and Black would go on to have bigger careers after this film, so it’s incredibly interesting to see them as young upstarts here.

Torn is so young and fresh-faced that he’s nearly unrecognizable as Bernard’s stern, reserved father.  Black does an admirable job embodying the kind of girl that a budding lothario knows he should pursue, even if that comes at the cost of a milquetoast characterization.  While she’s innocent and sweet, she doesn’t judge Bernard for his transgressions, which is refreshing for her character’s archetype.

Bucking the trend of student films shooting on 16mm film, Coppola uses his considerable budget to film on 35mm.  Andrew Laszlo, serving as Director of Photography, gives the film a fresh, energetic look that suits Coppola’s countercultural aesthetic.

The cold grays of New York City are contrasted with bright pops of color seen in the young characters’ attire and props.  Indeed, all the adults are depicted in boring, neutral tones so as to make the teenagers’ vibrancy stand out.  One great instance of this is the film’s opening shot, which starts wide on a dull, quiet library scene.

Suddenly, the camera rushes in towards the door, and Hartman’s character storms into the room.  Clad in screaming orange and accompanied by the blasts of rock and roll music, her entrance signifies nothing less than the arrival of a new generation intent on upending the traditional order.

Editor Aram Avakian complements this attitude by employing fast-paced, experimental editing influenced by the then-burgeoning French New Wave.  Other stylistic flourishes, like on-screen titles animated to resemble typewriting, further push the experimental tone that Coppola is after.  As a result, the film must have felt very fresh and bleeding-edge in its techniques upon its release.

Robert Prince contributes a jaunty, energetic score, but the musical soul of the film belongs to rock band Loving Spoonful, which firmly roots the film in the teenage counterculture of the 60’s.  It’s unpolished guitar riffs chafe against the edges of the frame, encroaching ever closer and eventually consuming its characters entirely.

YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW finds Coppola combining his experience with his early softcore comedies with the hard-edged vitality of the emergent youth culture.  The film’s tone is breezy and playful, with the kind of boundless optimism and curiosity reserved only for the young.  There’s even a sense of burgeoning filmography to Coppola’s craft, manifested by the use of footage from DEMENTIA 13 as an art installation in a nightclub sequence.

By this point in his career, Coppola had yet to establish a consistent visual aesthetic, but his taste for experimentation and boundary-pushing is quite evident.  With the release of YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW, Coppola established himself at the forefront of his generation’s ascent into the industry.  Not bad for a student film.


FINIAN’S RAINBOW (1968)

Full disclosure- I’m not a big fan of musicals.  Something about people spontaneously bursting into song and dance makes me profoundly uncomfortable, and I can’t explain it.  Naturally, I approached my viewing of FINIAN’S RAINBOW (1968), director Francis Ford Coppola’s third true feature film, with a large degree of hesitation.

  While I don’t plan on watching it again, I have to admit it was much better and watchable than I expected it to be, thanks to young Coppola’s considerable storytelling ability and an evocative Southern setting.  FINIAN’S RAINBOW, distributed by Warner Brothers, is Coppola’s first big studio picture, and the modest success of the film would further propel his career to new heights.

FINIAN’S RAINBOW is about Finian McLonergan (Fred Astaire) and his daughter Sharon (Petula Clark), who’ve recently left their native Ireland to venture to the mythical land of Rainbow Valley, Missitucky.  Unbeknownst to Sharon, Finian is carrying a bag full of gold that he stole from a leprechaun named Og (Tommy Steele), and plans to place the gold in close proximity to Fort Knox so that it may multiply.

While Sharon falls in love with Rainbow Valley’s most eligible bachelor, Woody Mahoney (Don Francks), Og The Leprechaun tracks down Finian to Missitucky and attempts to take back his gold before he becomes mortal.  Toss in a little song and dance, and a lot of Irish stereotypes and you’ve got the idea.  It was by complete coincidence that I watched this very Irish film on St. Patrick’s Day, but my general amusement at that fact helped my enjoyment of the film overall.

Every member of the cast seems fully devoted to Coppola’s vision.  Even the seasoned movie star and dancing legend Fred Astaire gives himself fully over to Coppla’s whims.  Pushing 70 during the film’s production, FINIAN’S RAINBOW became Astaire’s last major movie musical.  It’s a great send-off that allows Astaire to retain his youthful vigor, dazzling grin, and fancy-free footwork despite his elderly, frail state.

Clark garnered a great deal of acclaim for her singing talent as Irish lass Sharon McLonergan.  Francks drew from the folk persona of Woody Guthrie for his portrayal of the rakish Mahoney.  Keenan Wynn is a good sport, allowing himself to be humiliated at every turn as the film’s racist, lily-white antagonist, Senator Rawkins.

The sprightly Barbara Hancock plays Susan the Silent, who is unable to speak but communicates effortlessly via dance.  As the cartoonish leprechaun Og, Tommy Steel received the bulk of ire directed at the film.  His goofy, slapstick-laden performance was decidedly off-tone (despite the inherent whimsical nature of the story).  I can’t say I blame his detractors– I hated that guy’s shit-eating grin, too.

FINIAN’S RAINBOW sees one of the largest casts that Coppola has ever assembled, and he does a great job filling out the population of Rainbow Valley with outsized, memorable personas.    The expansive world-building on display proves to be a great training ground for the kind of epic filmmaking Coppola would take on in THE GODFATHER (1972) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).

Indeed, FINIAN’S RAINBOW marks a considerable uptick in scale and production value for Coppola, who makes great use of all the extra toys afforded him.  The sunny, springtime exterior locales are given scope via extensive crane and dolly movements (and even the occasional helicopter shot), and all the set dressings required to sell his story are in abundant supply.

Curiously enough, Coppola mashes together location/exterior footage and sets made to look exterior with reckless abandon, oftentimes creating jarring transitions and leaps in logic.  While some of these sets were built for valid reasons (lighting a forest at night would be too expensive), others seem to have little explanation.

However it does illuminate Coppola’s internal battle over shooting the film like a traditional Hollywood musical or indulging his experimental, more-realistic tendencies cultivated in film school.  One instance of this indulgence is allowing specks of water to remain on the camera lens during a firefighting sequence, which gives the scene an immediate presence not unlike documentary.

While the film is decidedly old-school in its approach, an undercurrent of film brat rebellion charges the picture with a harder edge than it normally would have.

As lensed by Director of Photography Philip H. Lathrop, the 35mm film image– framed at the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio– is heavily saturated with the gonzo hues of Technicolor and lit within an inch of its life.  Coppola and Lathrop show an aptness for staging complicated group numbers with a breezy energy that draws the audience into being active participants in the song and dance.

The sleepy southern town of Rainbow Valley and its rich, brown/green color palette is fleshed out in great detail by production designer Hilyard M. Brown.    Ray Heindorf rounds out the list of technical collaborators with his arrangement of the musical’s many numbers into jaunty, energetic orchestrations that retain a decidedly Irish influence.

Having been released in the prime days of the Civil Rights movement, FINIAN’S RAINBOW’s racial and cultural politics have now aged into amusing, quaint oddities.  Its incorporation of actor Keenan Wynn playing blackface (having been magically transformed from white to black in the course of the story) was understandably met with controversy upon its release.

So many decades on, it still comes off as extremely politically incorrect, but is now more-easily written off as a product of antiquated cultural views.  This is further reflected in the film with earnest, positive expressions about the benefits of credit, and even asbestos.  Moments like these paint a fuller picture of an optimistic time gone by, albeit at the cost of losing a certain, timeless aura.

Coppola does an admiral job directing FINIAN’S RAINBOW, breezily clipping along the film’s 2 ½ hour running time so that it’s not a complete snoozefest.  There are many positive things to recommend about it– Astaire’s performance, and the set design to name a few– as there are negative.

Its cultural legacy has since become its relevancy to Coppola’s development as a filmmaker.  It was a huge step up for him, and the first real test of his talent.  The sheer task of directing such a big, mainstream production would efficiently prepare Coppola for the biggest challenges of his career, and would allow him to soar like Astaire himself when lesser filmmakers would’ve fallen flat on their faces.


THE RAIN PEOPLE (1969)

A year after releasing his first big-budget studio film (1968’s FINIAN’S RAINBOW), director Francis Ford Coppola was back in theaters with a markedly different feature film.  Channeling the experimental sensibilities and understated narratives of the French New Wave, 1969’s THE RAIN PEOPLE was a subtle, introspective road picture that eschewed all the frills of contemporary studio filmmaking.

For Coppola personally, the film is further notable in that it was the first project released under his fledgling production studio, American Zoetrope.  In the years since, American Zoetrope has been a source of great trial and tribulation for Coppola and his associates, but has consistently delivered on its promise of making original, thought-provoking acts of cinema.  As Zoetrope’s first feature release,  THE RAIN PEOPLE is a fascinating window into the principles and ideals that shaped an upstart indie studio into a cinematic institution.

THE RAIN PEOPLE assumes the perspective of Natalie Ravenna, a lonely housewife who abruptly picks up and hits the road upon learning that she’s pregnant.  Spurning her husband’s pleas to return home, she picks up a handsome, mentally stunted hitchhiker named Killer (James Caan).  The two form an unlikely friendship, with Natalie becoming something of a caretaker to the young man.

Inevitably, Killer falls in love with Natalie, which doesn’t make their situation any easier when Natalie becomes romantically involved with a lonely police officer named Gordon (Robert Duvall).

Coppola’s command of his cast’s performances, especially in regards to their emotional restraint, is superb.  Natalie, as played by Knight, is reserved and conflicted as she suddenly finds herself in the throes of a quarter-life crisis brought about by pregnancy.  It’s a haunting performance, and Knight was rightfully recognized for the strength of her portrayal.

In hindsight, the most interesting aspect of Coppola’s casting is the first instance of collaboration with both James Caan and Robert Duvall.  Everyone knows they’d both go on to legendary performances in Coppola’s next film, THE GODFATHER (1972), but not a lot of people know that Duvall and Caan were actually roommates at one point.  If that doesn’t compel you to amicably figure out who’s taking care of those dishes in the sink tonight, I don’t know what will.

Caan is fresh-faced and quiet as Jimmy Kilgannon, affectionately nicknamed Killer.  His character was a college football player who was left mentally stunted after a particularly bad concussion.  He embodies a child-like innocence, with an unflagging loyalty and obedience to Natalie that’s not unlike a dog.  Duvall, in contrast, is inquisitive and tough as a widowed cop looking for some rough love.

He’s dangerous and unpredictable, which makes him so attractive to Natalie in the first place.  The battle between these two men is well built-up to, and when it finally explodes, it does so with the force of an atomic bomb.

What struck me most upon watching this film was Coppola’s visual treatment of the story.  The picture, lensed by Director of Photography Wilmer Butler, is simple and unadorned.  Coppola and Butler are content to let the 1.85:1 frame simply dwell on its subject, passively observing long, quiet moments of reflection and malaise.

The lighting is as naturalistic as the performances, and the air of realism hangs heavy over the proceedings.  It’s almost the prototypical mumblecore film, what with its low-key look, simple performances and barely perceptible plot developments.

Ronald Stein, who previously supplied the score for Coppola’s DEMENTIA 13 (1963), creates a staccato, melancholy score here that also infuses a little bit of jazz into the rural West Virginian setting.  Contrasting with the musical bombast that was FINIAN’S RAINBOW, Coppola adopts a reserved approach to music that matches his minimalist aesthetic.  Even the film’s opening credits eschew music, opting instead for the quiet patter of early-morning rain and ambient clanking of garbage truck machinery in a quiet suburban neighborhood.

Curiously incongruent with the low-key nature of the photography, however, is Barry Malkin’s editing.  Borrowing heavily from the innovations of the nascent wave of cinema rebels in France, Malkin incorporates a variety of avant-garde techniques like jump-cuts, poetic juxtaposition, mismatched sound cues, etc.  Coppola and Malkin often pepper dialogue scenes with wordless flashes of perpendicular action, flashing forward or backwards to illuminate events that bring greater meaning to the dialogue sequence at hand.

The groundbreaking editing, when combined with the minimalist visual style, gives the film a very European vibe.

This points to a common, definitive trait of the “Film Brat” generation of directors– that of reference and/or allusion to classic works as well as the work of their contemporaries abroad.  Unlike the directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, directors like Coppola were part of a larger community of filmmakers inspiring each other in their attempts to redefine the language of cinema.

Coppola counts THE RAIN PEOPLE among the top five favorite films of his own making, and for good reason.  It’s a strikingly confident work, free of the studio interference that would come to plague him as he became more successful.  It was also his first collaboration with future STAR WARS  creator George Lucas, who served as production associate on the film.

Filmmakers like Lucas were one of the reasons that Coppola founded American Zoetrope– he sought not only to advance his own cinematic interests, but to further the innovative spirit of filmmaking by empowering like-minded directors and giving them the resources to create outside of a stifling studio system.

Ironically enough, Coppola’s next film would beholden him to the studio system more so than he ever wanted (albeit at great benefit to his career).  In that context, THE RAIN PEOPLE is an interesting look into an artistically pure Coppola, unfettered by outside opinions and influence, as he cements his particular brand of storytelling and characterization.


THE GODFATHER (1972)

What more is there to possibly say about 1972’s THE GODFATHER that hasn’t already been said?  It is undoubtedly, inarguably one of the greatest films ever made.  It’s a goddamn institution of cinema that dares you to find fault with it.  Yes, you could say it’s overlong, convoluted, even boring– but by no means can you not respect it.  I suspect that director Francis Ford Coppola had no idea what he was getting into when cameras first started rolling that fateful day in 1972.

Coppola initially took the job, not for passion, but for money.  American Zoetrope, the company he founded with the intent to liberate himself from the studio system of filmmaking, found itself in debt to those very same studios due to budget overruns on his good friend George Lucas’ directorial debut, THX 1138 (1971).  As the producer on that film, Coppola found himself deeply in debt and took on THE GODFATHER so that he could afford to feed his growing family.

It was precisely this familial element of the film’s genesis that threw the story into focus for Coppola.  Paramount saw another cheap gangster film that would turn an easy profit, but Coppola saw a sprawling epic about loyalty, family, and honor that became a grand metaphor for the ruthless mechanics of American capitalism.  So convinced of his own vision was he, Coppola endured a trial by fire wrought by studio executives who made very vocal their distaste of his casting and directorial choices at every step along the way.

It was the single most formative experience of Coppola’s career, even more so than his fiasco of a shoot in the jungle for APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).

We all know the characters, and we all know the story– to a varying degree, of course.  THE GODFATHER’s famously labyrinthine plotting slowly reveals itself only through multiple viewings.  By my own estimations, this was the the third or fourth time I’ve seen the film, but it was probably the first time where I was able to really follow what was going on throughout.

I also had the distinct pleasure of watching the film with my girlfriend (hi, Chelsea!), who was watching it for the first time.  Many of the film’s sequences are iconic, but it was refreshing to see someone experience it for the first time, and still be actively engaged in a story that is nearly forty years old.  This speaks to the great deal of timelessness that THE GODFATHER is imbued with– it’s truly a film that will endure through the ages.

THE GODFATHER focuses on the Corleone crime syndicate, a close-knit Sicilian-Italian family who have amassed a tremendous fortune through illegal gambling operations.  As run by aging patriarch Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the Corleones are a well-oiled, efficient operation with friends in high places.

Set in New York in the decade following World War 2, THE GODFATHER chronicles the internal upheaval that the Corleones experience when pressure builds to join the increasingly-profitable narcotics trade, or risk losing their relevance in the world of organized crime.  As a man of honor and principe, Vito is staunchly opposed to dealing drugs, which angers the heads of rival crime families.

An unsuccessful assassination attempt on Vito’s life sparks open warfare involving his sons, particularly Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), a war hero and the youngest of Vito’s progeny.  When the heir apparent to Vito’s empire, hotheaded eldest son Sonny (James Caan) is betrayed by his brother-in-law and brutally gunned down in the street, and middle son Fredo (John Cazale) is deemed unfit to head the operation, Michael decides to assume control of the family.  However, the cost of this decision will be his very soul.

The performances in THE GODFATHER are career-defining, and nothing short of legendary.  A great deal of the film’s power comes from the sheer pathos and gravitas embodied by each and every character.  This is all the more-remarkable due to the fact that the studio infamously hated the cast and fought to have some of the key players replaced.

Brando won the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Don Vito (and famously refused to accept it in order to call attention to the terrible depiction of Native Americans in cinema).  Only 45 at the time of shooting, Brando assumed the affectations of a man twenty years his senior, all while under heavy prosthetic makeup and an elaborate jaw appliance that gave him a severe underbite.  His heartbreak at the sight of his empire crumbling and the corruption of his sons is heartbreaking to watch, and makes his performance one of the most iconic in history.

Pacino’s portrayal of Michael Corleone became his career breakout and instantly established him as one of his generation’s top acting talents.  Pacino’s Michael is vindictive and ruthless while still remaining likable, which makes for a believable performance as a man fated to become the very devil he meant to dispel.  His character arc is one of the most compelling trajectories ever devised, and while it came close to a reality several times throughout production, it’s very hard to imagine anyone else other than Pacino in the role.

James Caan and Robert Duvall continue their collaboration with Coppola as Sonny and consigliere Tom Hagen, respectively.  Caan is all fiery temper and braggadocio as the heir apparent to Vito’s criminal empire.  Despite his presence in only 1/9 of the entire GODFATHER TRILOGY’s 9-hour running time, his presence hangs heavy over the entirety of it like a specter.

While Caan would continue delivering iconic performances throughout his career, his portrayal of Sonny Corleone will arguably be the one he is always remembered for.  Same goes for Duvall, who as Vito’s adopted son of Irish and German descent, is one of the family’s most trusted outsiders.  Acting publicly as the family’s lawyer, he privately takes on an advisor role to Vito, dispensing wisdom and objective reason.

Filling out the Corleone family is the inimitable Cazale in his film debut as middle son Fredo, as well as Coppola’s real-life sister Talia Shire as their sister Connie.  While Cazale’s true importance lies in the events of THE GODFATHER PART II (1974), the roots of those problems are firmly established here by depicting Fredo as somewhat of a black sheep, too stupid and clumsy to reliably lead the Corleone family on his own.

Filling out the cast are Diane Keaton and Sterling Hayden as key players in the Corleone family saga.  The impeccable Hayden plays Captain McCluskey, the repugnant, corrupt cop that Michael murders in cold blood.  Keaton plays Kay Adams, who becomes Michael’s wife in the film.

Her anglo-saxon, WASP-y ways stand in stark contrast to the Corleone’s reserved familial identity, a dynamic visually reinforced by having her continually clad in bright primary colors that scream compared to the dark neutral shades that The Family dresses in.  Her growing despair at the realization of Michael’s corruption is a focal point for the saga’s continuing conversation about ethics, and she becomes an avatar of sorts for our own arms-length distance from the family affairs.

Coppola finds an elegant way to visually depict this at the film’s end, when Kay stands outside the inner chamber of Michael’s office as his capos come to kiss his ring as the new Don Corleone.  We see the remove from her perspective, and then Coppola elegantly cuts to the reverse shot– a close up of Kay’s falling expression as the door closes on her.  The moment is pure cinema: the culmination of all that came before it and a charged beat that brings the film’s central conceit into clear focus.

The mastery of craft on display extends to the film’s cinematography, courtesy of Gordon Willis- a man who who’s ability to capture evocative shadows earned him the moniker “The Prince of Darkness”.  Indeed, THE GODFATHER is a very dark experience visually and thematically.  Shot on 35mm film, the image’s pervading darkness is broken only by strategically placed pools of light which create an exaggerated chiaroscuro without departing too far from reality.

Colors are washed out and desaturated, taking on a warm sepia tone that resembles a faded old family photograph.  The darkly handsome 1.85:1 frame is given life by elegant, classical camera movements and deep focus that highlights well-worn, distinctive set dressing by production designer Dean Tavoularis.  THE GODFATHER is often imitated and held up as a gold standard in cinematography, and after recent restoration efforts by Coppola himself, the film looks just as good as it did when it first unspooled on unsuspecting audiences forty years ago.

Any discussion of THE GODFATHER wouldn’t be complete with mentioning the film’s iconic musical theme.  Composed by Nino Rota, the theme has ingrained itself into pop culture so much that it is instantly recognizable, even among those who haven’t seen the film.  It’s a mournful waltz that effortlessly incorporates the major themes of the film into musical form.

The music is one of those serendipitous things that just resonates with the zeitgeist and becomes a part of the human experience– the mere mention of the words THE GODFATHER makes you immediately hear the song in the head (admit it, you’re humming it to yourself even now) .  Part of why the films will never be forgotten is due to Rota’s score being so damn unforgettable.  As for Coppola personally, it will accompany him in major milestones for the rest of his life– Oscar wins, public appearances, etc.  I’d bet it’s even played at his funeral.

THE GODFATHER is a master-class in directing, revealing new insights upon each subsequent viewing.  Many things, like Coppola’s inclusion of oranges in a given sequence as a bellwether of impending death are well known, but many more of THE GODFATHER’s secrets aren’t given up so easily.

Coppola’s rich explorations of the themes of family, loyalty, and obligation can be seen as explorations into his own cultural identity and heritage.  For Coppola, and Italian culture at large, communal rituals, traditions and ceremonies are major life milestones by which the plot points of our lives are played out.  The film begins with a lavish wedding steeped in Old World custom, designed to introduce us not only to this detailed world but to the complicated characters who inhabit it.

Conversely, Coppola ends the film with a baptism by both water and blood.  It’s the most stunning sequence of the film, and arguably the single best contribution Coppola has ever made to the ever-evolving language of cinema: as Michael’s nephew and godson is baptized into the Catholic Church (and thus delivered into the proverbial saving grace of God), Michael’s capos carry out an elaborate series of murders designed to knock off the Corleones’ rivals and consolidate power in a baptism of blood (thus delivering Michael into the hands of Satan).

It’s a bone-chilling and haunting sequence, effortlessly orchestrated by Coppola in a way that takes full advantage of his experimental affectations.  It literally created the cross-cut, a perpendicular editing technique that is still used to today to lend immense power to films like SKYFALL (2012) or THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).

Even Coppola’s contemporaries have referenced it, most notably in the Jedi extermination/creation of the Empire sequence in George Lucas’ STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005).  In this sequence in particular, THE GODFATHER’s hidden, double meaning as a title is revealed.  While initially presented in assumed reference to Corleone patriarch Don Vito, it’s not until the end that we realize its in reference to Michael as he fully embraces his descent into evil.

THE GODFATHER has left an enduring legacy on the American psyche that’s almost unfathomable to comprehend.  It was a bonafide phenomenon and instant classic upon its release, resulting in the highest box office returns and acclaim in Coppola’s career.

It catapulted him into the echelons of cinema’s great directors nearly overnight, and even though many of his contemporaries’ films have lost some of their luster upon reappraisal, THE GODFATHER still holds up as a sterling example of what cinema is and should be.  It truly is one of the greatest films ever made, and anyone who thinks different is liable to find themselves sleeping with the fishes.


THE CONVERSATION (1974)

I have a strange, contentious relationship to director Francis Ford Coppola’s feature film THE CONVERSATION (1974).  It is widely regarded amongst film circles as a masterpiece in its own right, and I tend to agree.  However, there’s something intangible that I find alienating on a personal level.  I don’t know what it is, so I can’t really explain it.

I had the same reaction the first time I saw the film in college– that of a deep, yet cold respect that left little in the way of actually loving it.  I was hoping that this might change upon revisiting the film, but I can’t really say that it has.

After the Best Picture win for 1972’s THE GODFATHER, Coppola was awash in acclaim and could choose any project he wanted.  Despite the calls to go right into production on a sequel to THE GODFATHER, Coppola chose instead to shoot a small, personal project as a palette cleanser.

This arguably began the trend of successful directors leveraging a blockbuster’s warm reception into making a passion project of their own design (a trend continued most recently by Christopher Nolan when he made 2010’s INCEPTION between the two final chapters of his DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY).

THE CONVERSATION concerns a private investigator named Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) who specializes in audio surveillance.  He and a team of associates have been contracted to record a clandestine conversation between two seemingly-innocuous pedestrians in a crowded San Francisco park.

As Caul refines and mixes his recordings in his warehouse studio, the nature of the conversation reveals itself to be of murderous intent.  Thinking he might be indirectly enabling a horrible crime to occur, Caul descends into an abyss of paranoia and mystery, convinced that he has become a target of surveillance himself.

The film was released just as the Watergate scandal broke, which made the story feel extremely relevant. The performances, which tapped into a fundamental distrust of authority figures, are striking without being over-the-top.  As Caul, Gene Hackman eschewed his leading-man good looks by donning ill-fitting glasses and an unflattering plastic jacket that looks not unlike a placenta.

However, he injects a paranoid pathos that is utterly compelling, taking us along for the ride as he descends into madness.  Caul might be one of the more intriguing protagonists in recent memory:  his career consists of recording unsuspecting targets, but he has developed an extreme case of paranoia about his own privacy– even going so far as to tear up his entire apartment when he suspects it’s been bugged.

Coppola also enlists the help of GODFATHER alumnus John Cazale, who plays Stan, Caul’s bookish surveillance assistant.  Out of the six films in which Cazale appeared during his lifetime, this is probably his smallest role, while also being his least neurotic/eccentric.  Despite the limited screen time, Cazale brings a highly memorable presence to the film.

It really is a shame that we lost Cazale so early, as he might have been one of cinema’s most treasured character actors.

Rounding out the cast is Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford, and recurring Coppola collaborator Robert Duvall.  Garfield plays Bernie Moran, a sound surveillance expert from New York and a friendly rival of Caul’s.  Williams plays Ann, the anxious, vulnerable woman at the center of Caul’s surveillance.  Ford, who was introduced to Coppola via George Lucas’ AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973), plays Martin Stelt, a well-dressed businessman who stalks Caul in pursuit of his recordings.

It’s interesting to watch Ford in his pre-Han Solo days, as his developing talents are very noticeable.  He’s not particularly good in THE CONVERSATION, but you can tell the potential is there.  Meanwhile, Duvall appears in somewhat of a glorified cameo as the mystery man who commissions Haul to record the targets, only to find himself a victim of his own suspicions.

THE CONVERSATION has a much more even look compared to the amber-soaked visuals of THE GODFATHER.  Originally lensed by director of photography Haskell Wexler, Wexler proved to be combative with Coppola and was replaced by Bill Butler, Coppola’s DP from THE RAIN PEOPLE (1969).  The 1.85:1 35mm film frame is appropriately gritty and seedy, dealing in a bland color palette of grays and neutrals.

This color scheme is further reflected by Dean Tavoularis’ production design, which features cold, brutalist architecture at odds with its picturesque San Francisco setting.  Perhaps this is why I feel so alienated by the film– a great deal of the film’s story takes places in cold, imposing locales that blot out clarity and logic.  While opting for a relatively realistic presentation, Coppola does include an impressionistic dream sequence rendered in a cobalt blue through a thick layer of smoke.

Despite the unassuming visual presentation, Coppola makes artful use of his camerawork in a way that reinforces the story’s central themes.  A recurring visual motif is “machinery in motion”, most notably seen in the whirring gears of Caul’s audio equipment.  Telephoto lenses prove to be a boon to Coppola’s aesthetic, giving the film’s surveillance sequences a verite feel that’s highly effective.

The opening shot (a slow zoom-in from a bird’s-eye perspective that finds a single conversation amongst a crowd of people) is one of the most famous of its kind, praised for its virtuoso sound editing by legendary cutter Walter Murch.

The camera movements are mostly restricted to the functional movement of actual surveillance cameras (the ending shot that pans back and forth is the clearest example).  This is an inspired move from Coppola, and yet another example of how he has redefined the visual language of cinema throughout his career to better tell his stories.

THE CONVERSATION utilizes the jazzy piano work of David Shire for its score, which combines the sounds of swing and ragtime music with minor keys that suggest intrigue and mystery with sinister underpinnings.  While it may seem odd for such a low-key, paranoid film, the sound reflects Caul’s own musical inclinations– he’s seen throughout the film playing his saxophone along to jazz records when he’s alone in his apartment.

For the entirety of the 1970’s, Coppola found himself on a directing hot streak in which he could do no wrong.  THE CONVERSATION falls somewhere in the middle of this streak, and sees Coppola embracing the low-key aesthetics of his independent roots while applying them to the trappings of a big-budget genre picture.

Coppola looked to his filmmaking peers abroad for inspiration when crafting the film, a practice that would come to define the film school-bred directors of his generation.  His chief influence was Michelangelo Antonioni’s Italian hit, BLOW-UP (1966), which featured a similar plot of using recordings (photographs in Antonioni’s film) to uncover a murderous conspiracy.

It could also be argued that Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON (1950) was another big inspiration to Coppola, with its multilayered narrative featuring different interpretations of a single event.  These European sensibilities lend at once both a worldliness as well as a bracing sense of innovation to what was somewhat of a stale period of American filmmaking.

THE CONVERSATION went on to snag the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and has since joined the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress, thereby stitching itself into the very fabric of American culture.  Coppola himself has stated that THE CONVERSATION is his favorite film of his own, owing to the very personal nature of the story.  For Coppola’s production studio, American Zoetrope, the film’s success was a validation of everything he had set out to do with its creation.

By tackling a smaller, radically different film after the success of THE GODFATHER, Coppola bought time to creatively refresh himself before embarking on production of THE GODFATHER PART II that very same year.  THE CONVERSATION has aged remarkably well since its release, becoming a classic in its own right.  While I still found myself inexplicably put-off by its subdued charm, I can’t deny the film’s sheer excellence that has contributed to its longevity.  THE CONVERSATION still has many secrets to tell us… all we have to do is listen.


THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)

As a general rule, sequels are pale imitations of the original films whose stories they continue.  In the modern Hollywood climate where franchised properties rule supreme (and nine out of ten films are a sequel, prequel or remake), it’s almost unfathomable to think of a time when sequels were looked down upon with disdain.

  It would take nothing less than the man who single-handedly re-energized American cinema to make a sequel that stood on equal footing with its predecessor and usher in the age of the serial film franchise.  Released in 1974, director Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER PART II undoubtedly (and ironically) became the genesis for today’s serialized cinematic landscape.

There is considerable discussion as to which is the superior film, with a substantial camp proclaiming THE GODFATHER PART II as not only superior to the 1972 original, but one of the greatest films of all time.  Personally, I fall into this mode of thought as I find THE GODFATHER PART II to be a richer exploration of the themes of loyalty and succession that so brazenly defined THE GODFATHER.

The film marks a substantial expansion in scope and vision for Coppola, who enjoyed abundant resources and  minimal studio intrusion during the shoot due to the runaway success of the original film.  As such, THE GODFATHER PART II is arguably Coppola’s biggest, most-fully-realized film– and undoubtedly his best.

Picking up right where the first film left off, THE GODFATHER PART II finds the Corleone family thriving in their adopted home of Lake Tahoe, Nevada.  On the occasion of Michael’s eldest child receiving his first communion, interfamilial conflict is brewing anew.

The new leader of Clemenza’s spinoff caporegime, Frankie Pentangeli (Michael Gazzo), comes to Michael (Al Pacino) requesting his help in resolving a dispute with the NY-based Rosato brothers.  Michael refuses, citing a conflict of interests with the Rosato brothers’ employer, a Florida-based Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg.

That night, an unsuccessful assassination attempt is made on Michael’s life, throwing the Corleone compound into chaos.  Michael travels to see Roth in Havana on the eve of the Cuban revolution, whilst trying to figure out who betrayed his family.  As the truth becomes evident that the betrayal rests inside his innermost circle of trusted advisors, Michael must sink to an unprecedented level of darkness to consolidate his power, even if it comes at the cost of his own family.

Meanwhile, a parallel narrative runs side by side Michael’s 1958 storyline.  This alternate story takes place in New York City’s Little Italy during the early twentieth century, as a young Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro) rises to become the all-powerful Don Corleone introduced to us in THE GODFATHER.  Arriving in Ellis Island as a child refugee from his hometown of Corleone, Sicily, Vito adapts well to his community’s particular brand of American capitalism.

The major milestones of Vito’s life are presented in comparison with Michael’s own tyrannical reign, which creates nothing less than the grand American Epic in its chronicle of power and destiny.

Chances are if you ask any professional actor about their reaction to THE GODFATHER series, they will gush at length about their love of the performances.  The series boasts one of the most unexpectedly impeccable casts of all time, and THE GODFATHER II resulted in no less than five acting nominations at that year’s Academy Awards.  Of those five (Pacino, DeNiro, Talia Shire, Lee Strasberg, Michael Gazzo), only DeNiro walked away with a golden statue, but that doesn’t mean any of the other performances are less distinguished.

THE GODFATHER PART II is Pacino’s show, showcasing his total embrace of moral bankruptcy and fundamental distaste for the necessity of his sins.  It’s a tour de force performance, embodied by a quiet, haunting intensity that lingers on a fundamental level.

DeNiro, an unknown whom Coppola cast after remembering his strong audition for the original film, is impeccable as the young Vito, channeling all of the physicality that Marlon Brando made famous while giving it the vigor and virility of a young man.  DeNiro’s Vito is the strong, silent type– a family man with vision and honor that could easily become a feared criminal leader.

The role was DeNiro’s breakout performance among mainstream American audiences (he had previously made a splash as Johnny Boy in Martin Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS a year prior), and was a stunning first act to one of the most acclaimed careers in cinema.  The presence of young Vito makes the entire GODFATHER saga richer and is the best manifestation of Coppola’s exploration of what it means, to quote those infamous opening lines to the original,  to “believe in America”.

The supporting cast is just as compelling as the marquee talent, helped largely by the considerable investment audiences made in their emotional arcs during the first film.  Diane Keaton reprises her role as Michael’s wife, Kay, continuing her trajectory as a disenfranchised wife who finds she must do the unthinkable in order to truly hurt him as much as he’s hurt her.

Regular Coppola collaborator Robert Duvall’s reprisal of consigliere Tom Hagen is also given added responsibility this time around as a reluctant accomplice to Michael’s nefarious aims.

John Cazale returns as Fredo, playing a much larger role in the Corleone’s Shakespearean drama as the older brother who’s upset over being passed over.  Cazale’s performance in this film is easily his career-best, imbued with a seething resentment stemming from his incompetence.  As I’ve written before, Cazale was only with us as an actor for a very short time.

He only made six films before suffering a premature death, but what impeccable films those six were (the two GODFATHERS, Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION (1974), Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER (1978), and Sydney Lumet’s DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975)).  Cazale is heartbreaking here in that his actions lead to very tragic consequences, even though he’s just trying to earn a little respect.  Cazale will always be synonymous with his depiction of Fredo Corleone, and it’s a shame he was never formally recognized for his subtle, excellent performance.

Talia Shire returns as Connie, who has fallen into bouts of deep depression and ill-advised relationships with men Michael doesn’t approve of, all as a way to get back at him for having her first husband murdered.  No longer the hysterical, tearful woman that she was in the first film, the Connie found in THE GODFATHER PART II is refined and elegant, taking her first steps on the path to becoming the Corleone matriarch after her mother’s passing.

A gathering of new faces breathe fresh blood and dramatically-rich conflict into the series, most notably Lee Strassberg and Michael Gazzo.  As the wizened Jewish gangster Hyman Roth, Strassberg was lured out of retirement to craft an unforgettable character who’s frailty belies a lethal menace.  Initially presented as somewhat of a buffoon, Gazzo’s Frankie Pentangeli is an unexpected, conflicted antagonist to the Corleones whose actions cause key members of the Corleone family to question their own motivations.

Surprisingly, a young Harry Dean Stanton pops up as Frankie’s bodyguard, who I had never noticed in the film during previous viewings.  And last, but not least, James Caan famously received his entire pay from the first GODFATHER for his one day shoot reprising Sonny Corleone for a flashback sequence at the end of the film.  The balls on that guy, but credit is due since he actually pulled it off.

One of the defining traits of THE GODFATHER series is that all the films visually resemble each other.  When taken together, all three films coalesce to form a single, nine hour magnum opus.  This is due in large part to Director of Photography Gordon Willis, who devised THE GODFATHER’s striking visual look and replicated it in subsequent installments.

The 1.85:1 frame, shot on 35mm film, is rich in darkness, continuing the sepia-tinged aesthetic established in the first film.  The increased budget means more resources, which Coppola uses to great effect to expand the scope of his story with sweeping, operatic camera moves and a heavily detailed period recreation by production designer Dean Tavoularis.

One interesting thing that Willis does to help differentiate the two time periods can be found in the 1917 sequences, where sunlight is depicted in interior sequences as an intense glow that gives a distinct halo to characters when they stand in front of windows.  This approach subtly recreates the evolving nature of photography at the turn of the century, where greater degrees of latitude had yet to be developed and there was a much harsher contrast between light and dark.

Composer Nino Rota returns with his mournful, elegiac waltz of a score that has lingered in our collective consciousness for decades.  With THE GODFATHER PART II, he builds upon themes and leitmotifs that  show the progression of Mario Puzo’s beloved characters and to reflect their growing inner turmoil as the stakes stack ever-higher.

Coppola also includes a variety of diagetic source cues that paint a bigger picture of the Italian culture at large.  This is most notable in the Fest of San Gennaro sequence (which I’ll discuss at length later), which uses the fascistic Old World sound of “Marcia Religioso” to astounding effect.

Put simply, THE GODFATHER PART II is a staggering accomplishment of directorial prowess.  That Coppola reached this level of skill so early on in his career is astounding.  While many sequels fail in their rush to rehash the story beats that worked in the original, Coppola’s original vision for THE GODFATHER was so strong and compelling that, when given carte blanche to do as he pleased, the subject matter yielded entirely new, unexpected and shocking ways for the story to continue.

Many casual filmgoers don’t know this, but while the original film was based off of Mario Puzo’s novel, there was never an accompanying sequel novel off which to base a film version.  The entire story of the Corleones in midcentury Lake Tahoe (and their presence during the Cuban revolution) are entirely new fabrications devised by Coppola himself, albeit with some help from co-writer Puzo.  The Little Italy sequences set in 1917 are derived from a single chapter in Puzo’s original novel, yet fleshed out in a way that contrasts Michael’s fall from grace with Vito’s rise to power.

Indeed, this parallel rendering of a father and son at the same point in their lives during different time periods is one of the most affecting and relatable aspects of the film, and an unprecedented, inspired move on Coppola’s part.  As a young man myself, trying to establish my career and rise up to become whatever person I’m meant to be, I often find myself reflecting on how my own father came to be the person that I now look upon as a leader in his community and a model of manhood and success.

Obviously, he didn’t shoot people or join organized crime to get where he is, but the pursuit of the American Dream is something that everyone can relate and aspire to, regardless of their trade.  So naturally, I respond on a profound level to this kind of portraiture that Coppola has developed.

There’s one scene in particular I’d like to highlight as profoundly effective on me as a filmmaker, while also being a master-grade illustration of what just might be the perfect cinematic sequence.  Succession and ascendance into power are primary themes in the trilogy, with an act of murder usually serving as the initiation into the upper echelons.

In THE GODFATHER, this is shown when Michael murders Salazzo and Captain McCluskey at a quiet Italian restaurant.  In THE GODFATHER PART II, we witness young Vito’s own baptism of blood, which takes place during the famous San Gennaro street festival in Little Italy.  Vito stalks the rooftops above the celebration, following the movements of his target: Don Fanucci, a wealthy gangster who’s been oppressing and intimidating the community.  The soaring brass of “Marcia Religioso” serves as a quasi-fascistic accompaniment to the proceedings and lifts it to the level of opera.

If THE GODFATHER is about rising to power via succession, then THE GODFATHER PART II– with its inclusion of this sequence and the Cuban revolution storyline–  is about taking power by force.  Coppola’s sequel is about the deposition of kings, and how delicate that power is to hold onto once achieved.  The San Genarro sequence itself is perfectly paced, with nary a single shot wasted.

Each detail and moment is precisely calculated to generate suspense: from Vito’s prolonged stalking, to his manipulation of the lightbulb, to the use of a towel to dampen the sound of his gunfire, to Don Fanucci’s stunned reaction to the messy, imperfect red button that’s been punched haphazardly into his cheek and through his brain.  As far as the construction of a sequence goes, it’s perfect.  Coppola earned his first Oscar for directing with THE GODFATHER PART II, arguably in large part to this simple, yet riveting sequence.

Due to the relative freedom he enjoyed making the film, THE GODFATHER PART II is a view into Coppola at his most unfiltered.  As his own family was growing and he bought an estate out in Napa, CA to house them, he channeled the insights learned from these life experiences into his depiction of the Corleone family.  The story is a deeper exploration of the customs and culture of his ancestral heritage, which yields some of the most memorable and dramatically-rich plot developments in cinematic history.  Furthermore, the story requires Coppola to run a production on a personally unprecedented scale, especially in the young Vito Corleone sequences.  For a filmmaker who’s start was in small-budget schlock films (indeed, Coppola’s old boss Roger Corman makes a cameo appearance in the Senate Committee scenes), Coppola rises to the considerable challenge with bold vision and an effortless grace.

Objectively speaking, this is the pinnacle of Coppola’s career as a filmmaker.  It was met with a huge box office take, but ironically had a modest critical reception that only grew as people had a time to reflect on it.  This proved to be beneficial as THE GODFATHER PART II swept that year Academy’s Awards, netting gold statues for Best Art Direction (Tavoularis), Best Score (Rota), Best Adapted Screenplay (Coppola & Puzo), Best Supporting Actor (DeNiro), a repeat Director (Coppola), and Best Picture.

All the more astounding for the fact that it was a sequel (and one that started the trend of including numbers in the title to boot), THE GODFATHER PART II became a phenomenon that cemented the series’ place in pop culture and cinematic history.  Furthermore, the Library of Congress deemed it significant and worth preserving in 1993 when it inducted the film into the National Film Registry.

A film can’t get any more successful than that.  Even though his recent output has been somewhat weak, Coppola remains at the top of the heap of respected auteurs precisely because of the lasting fallout from this film.  THE GODFATHER PART II is a cornerstone in the house that cinema built, and it will endure long after its makers are gone.


APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)

Some films are to be cursed from their very inception. They taunt their makers with Herculean obstacles, only to break their spirits when they fall far short of their goals.  Some of these filmmakers would never recover (like Michael Cimino and 1980’s HEAVEN’S GATE), their careers never again retaining the same heady heights as their previous successes.

A select few manage to overcome these soul-crushing challenges, and fewer still actually manage to make a truly transcendent piece of work.  No film’s making more embodies the term “fiasco” than director Francis Ford Coppola’s passion project APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).  Shot as the follow-up to the unfathomably successful THE GODFATHER PART II (1974), Coppola suddenly found himself in those most treacherous of directorial waters: complete financial freedom.

  The production of APOCALYPSE NOW, which dragged on for close to three years, most certainly took many years off of Coppola’s life (as well as hundreds of pounds).  However, this sacrificial (and literal) pound of flesh netted him something much more valuable: immortality, in the form of one of the greatest and culturally significant films of all time.

APOCALYPSE NOW is nothing less than a cinematic descent into madness.  Based off Joseph Conrad’s lurid novella HEART OF DARKNESS, Coppola and screenwriter John Milius have kept the basic plot conceits while updating the setting from a turn-of-the-century Congo River to the Vietnam War.

Initially developed to be a directing vehicle for Coppola’s American Zoetrope colleague George Lucas, Coppola took the helm after Lucas departed to make 1977’s STAR WARS (a move which insulted Coppola so much they didn’t speak for years).  Coppola’s vision was to paint the Vietnam War as it truly was– a psychedelic, deeply disturbing voyage into the darkest corners of men’s souls.  Coppola aimed to make the greatest film ever created; an allegory for the entire American experience in Vietnam.  It’s safe to say that he more or less succeeded, despite the infamously-troubled production nearly killing him.

APOCALYPSE NOW tells the story of Willard (Martin Sheen), a burnt-out Army captain who’s sent out on a confidential mission: find and execute a rogue Colonel, Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who’s gone insane and established his own kingdom of brutality in the upriver jungles of Cambodia.

To transport him up the river, Willard is assigned a patrol boat operated by a small team of Naval officers.  As they inch ever closer to Kurtz’s savage compound, the men endure the hells and existential crises of the Vietnam War that rages around them.  When they finally arrive, Willard experiences a strange emotional connection to Kurtz’s deranged dogma that threatens to foil his mission and consume his sanity.

The film is a staggering achievement on all fronts.  As to be expected from Coppola, the cast is exemplary, with many turning in career-defining work despite the brutal filming conditions.  Martin Sheen, who replaced original actor Harvey Keitel two weeks into production, gives one of the best performances of his career as Captain Willard.

We first meet Willard as a strung-out husk of a man, rotting away in his hotel room in wait for an assignment that may never come.  Sheen’s haunting voiceover provides a dark, interior perspective to the events of the film, helping us to understand his psychological connection to Kurtz.

Sheen gives all of himself over to his character, even to the point where he infamously suffered a heart attack at the age of 36 as a result of the stress he endured during production.  With his haunting performance, Sheen seared himself into our collective consciousness and became an avatar for the American experience in Vietnam.

Marlon Brando, despite only having a few minutes of actual screen time, easily earns his top billing by ominously towering over the story as the near-mythical Col. Kurtz.  Coppola managed to lure the reclusive star into the jungle for one more collaboration, but Brando certainly didn’t make it easy for his exhausted director.  Famously, Brando not only showed up (late) to set overweight and bald, but having not read the screenplay or Conrad’s original novel.

Brando battled Coppola on every single element of his character, but given the unfathomable genius of Brando’s performance, it’s easy to see there was a method to his madness.  Coppola shot Brando in shadows and close-ups mainly as a way to hide his enormous girth, but in doing so, he created a staggering personification of unknowable evil.

Of his late career roles, Brando’s performance as Col. Kurtz eclipses even that of Vito Corleone in Coppola’s THE GODFATHER.  While he would go on to do a handful of roles in smaller films until his death, APOCALYPSE NOW marks Brando’s last great appearance in cinema, closing the book on one of the medium’s most talented personas with a pitch black conclusion.

Robert Duvall, who by this point had appeared in every Coppola film since 1969’s THE RAIN PEOPLE, channels a very different kind of unhinged psychopath in the form of Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore.  Duvall’s Kilgore heads the 9th Air Cavalry Regiment, a cocksure squad of gung-ho helicopter jockeys who tear ass across the jungle while blasting Wagner’s “Ride of The Valkyries”.

Representing the testosterone-laden braggadocio that led us into the Vietnam War in the first place, Kilgore barks each line with a forceful authority.  His eyes obscured behind pitch-black sunglasses, Kilgore’s specialized brand of cowboy diplomacy leaves nothing but fire and death in its wake.  His lust for war is matched only by his love of surfing, which he manages to pack in even under heavy artillery fire.

Duvall clearly enjoys the chance to chew scenery, which he doesn’t usually get to do under Coppola’s direction.  Despite a comparable screen time to Brando, Duvall’s performance is highly memorable due to his pathological delivery of enduring lines as “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he was the only one on the entire production who actually had any fun.

Accompanying Sheen on his journey upriver are the colorful characters of the PBR boat, manned by the gruff quartermaster George Philips (Albert Hall).  The late Sam Bottoms appears as Lance, a boyish California surfer whose clean-cut persona descends into a druggy haze as he tries to cope with the horrors of the war.

A young Laurence Fishburne (only 14 at the time) plays Mr. Clean, a cocky kid whose self-deceit over his own mortality will be his ruin.  Finally there’s Frederic Forrest, who previously appeared in Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION (1974).  Forrest plays Chef, a mustachioed saucier from New Orleans and an unpredictable, manic presence.  These characters help to establish levity and companionship as the circumstances grow more dire.

Rounding out the cast are Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford, and G.D. Spradlin.  Hopper plays The Photojournalist, the strung-out jester of Kurtz’s court.  Hopper adds a great deal of energy late into the film, drawing on his hippie persona that he established ten years earlier in EASY RIDER while taking it to a dark extreme.

A pre-STAR WARS Ford, having previously appeared in THE CONVERSATION for Coppola, plays Col. Lucas, a bookish officer who briefs Willard on the mission.  Spradlin, who played Senator Geary in THE GODFATHER PART II, plays the general that gives Willard his assignment.

To create APOCALYPSE NOW’s acid-baked look, Coppola turned to Director of Photography Vittorio Storaro.  Filmed on 35mm film, Coppola and Storaro take advantage of the panoramic 2.35:1 aspect ratio to capture Vietnam’s nightmarish vistas.  A palette of saturated earth tones and yellow highlights gives a sweaty, slightly sick look to the visuals.

This burnt-out look is further complemented by the use of lens flares and relentlessly plodding camerawork.  Coppola utilizes a great deal of aerial photography to give an uneasy majesty to the proceedings, capturing Dean Tavoularis’ exhaustive production design in all its sprawling glory.  The editors (Walter Murch, Lisa Fruchtman, and Gerald B. Greenberg) make recurring use of crossfade transitions and double-exposed/layered shots that give the film the surreal aura of a bad acid trip.  APOCALYPSE NOW is easily Coppola’s most visually stylized film apart from 1992’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, accentuating the psychedelic, nightmarish nature of Vietnam.

Sound plays an enormous part in Coppola’s grand vision, beginning with its pioneering use of the Dolby 5.1 Surround sound system– which has since become the exhibition standard for all major films.  APOCALYPSE NOW paints a sonic portrait of Vietnam even more hellish than its imagery, punctuated by concussive bomb blasts and the menacing drone of helicopter rotors.

Coppola’s vision for a psychedelic experience extends to the sound design, where he synthesized many sound effects so as to be indistinguishable from the score (the helicopter droning being the most famous example).  Continuing his penchant for collaborating with family members, Coppola enlists the help of his father Carmine to craft the score.

Coppola the elder creates a foreboding electronic score that uses discordant tones to create a fundamental unease and an encroaching sense of malice.  Francis Coppola also utilizes the druggy sound of The Doors and The Rolling Stones to further establish the psychedelic aspects of his vision.

It’s a big feat when a filmmaker is able to indelibly link a pre-existing song to a film so strongly that they become inseparable.  The auteurs rising up amongst the Film Brat generation realized the power of well-placed music, not the least of whom was Coppola himself.  With APOCALYPSE NOW, Coppola creates several such such moments as easily as you would tie your shoe.

There’s the brooding vocals of Jim Morrison’s “This Is The End” playing over silent footage of napalm reducing an entire jungle to cinders, or the unforgettable “Ride Of The Valkyries” sequence (which was referenced later in Sam Mendes’ JARHEAD (2005) as a way to pump up young Marines on the eve of their deployment to Kuwait).  There’s even Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Susie Q”, which accompanies the appearance of three dancing Playmates during a rowdy USO show.  I can’t think of another film that so brilliantly and creatively mixes sound and music to such striking effect.

Coppola’s habit for experimentation with the language of cinema is on full display with APOCALYPSE NOW.  He paints Willard’s journey upriver as an allegory for a journey backwards in time, beginning with the machine-based warfare of the present and reaching back to the primitive, sacrificial nature of tribe-based social systems.

He also released the film without titles or credits, originally intending to tour the film around the country with printed programs.  While this didn’t exactly come to pass, most home video releases of the film omit credits, making for a fully immersive descent into madness free from conventional cinematic constructs.

In a rare move, Coppola appears in a cameo as a newsreel director who yells “pretend you’re fighting!” to soldiers as they run by his camera.  This is, of course, an allusion to the manufactured image that the television/entertainment complex depicted the war with, but it also goes a long way towards establishing the story’s startlingly self-aware viewpoint.

The Vietnam War was the first major war to be beamed directly into our households via television, and Coppola gracefully touches on the point while making a concise point about the media’s perversion of combat.

The story of APOCALYPSE NOW’s production has been extensively documented in print and film (most notably in wife Eleanor Coppola’s brilliant HEARTS OF DARKNESS documentary), so I won’t go into too much detail.  It was (and still is) the biggest production Coppola has ever mounted, with a scale and scope so staggeringly massive that one film could barely contain it all.

THE ODYSSEY-like nature of the story required an equally operatic point of view, which Coppola was well-equipped to handle due to his previous experiences.  What he wasn’t equipped for, however, were the almost-biblical challenges he had to face with shooting the film in the primordial jungles of the Phillippines.

Before he even could get a firm handle on his operation, the production ballooned millions of dollars over-budget and months behind schedule.  A six-week shoot turned into almost thirty, and the tempestuous tropical climate wreaked havoc on expensive sets as well as morale.  Coppola found himself shouldering nearly all of the burden alone, losing nearly 100 pounds during the process.  Simply put, the shoot was hell.  The fact that such a great film, let alone a coherent film, emerged from the wreckage is nothing short of a miracle.

APOCALYPSE NOW was made during the tail end of the auteur era, perhaps even contributing to its demise.     While it was met with widespread acclaim and box office success, its particular brand of scorched-earth filmmaking influenced directors like Michael Cimino to launch elaborate productions of their own– resulting in the atomic bomb that was HEAVEN’S GATE.  These two extravagantly-made films caused studio executives to assert more control over their runaway productions, and subsequently ushered in the epoch of the blockbuster.

Fortunately for Coppola, APOCALYPSE NOW was received as a qualified masterpiece on par with his two GODFATHER entries.  It managed to win the coveted Palm D’Or at Cannes, which is more impressive when you consider that Coppola only screened an unfinished cut.  It went on to win Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Sound, and was even inducted into the National Film Registry in 2000.

In 2001, Coppola and editor Walter Murch went back to the source elements and created a new edit of the film, dubbed APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX.  This longer cut (running almost three and a half hours) included several deleted scenes that shed further light on Coppola’s darkly complex characters.  There’s significant debate within the film community as to which version is better.

For the purposes of this essay, I watched both versions to arrive at my own personal conclusion.  While both versions are excellent, I’d have to give the edge to REDUX, mainly for its more-expansive exploration into man’s primordial darkness.

APOCALYPSE NOW is an unforgettable film, made even more so by the utter misery the filmmakers experienced in shooting it.  Its cinematic legacy is assured, judging by the deep respect and reverence bestowed upon the film in the thirty years since its release.  Furthermore, it is the capstone to a truly remarkable decade for Coppola– each of his four films in this period went on to become cultural institutions in their own right.

All of this success came at a heavy price, however; to this day Coppola has been unable to attain such raw, visceral power in his subsequent projects (not even 1990’s THE GODFATHER PART III).

Did APOCALYPSE NOW use up all Coppola’s talent?  Did the overwhelming stress ultimately break him? Did he lose his soul to insanity like Kurtz or Willard?  We may never know exactly what happened in that jungle, but what came out of it was northing less than a bloodsoaked rebirth for cinema.


ONE FROM THE HEART (1982)

The word “irony” is not lost on director Francis Ford Coppola.  One could argue that Coppola’s entire career is ironic, due to him becoming a symbol of the very same studio system that he initially sought to oppose.  After entering the pantheon of great American filmmakers with his two GODFATHER films and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), his next project would ironically bring him back to down to earth with a massive failure matched only by Michael Cimino’s HEAVEN’S GATE (1980).

This one-two punch of opulent misfires effectively ended the auteur era in Hollywood, with executives reasserting control over projects that subsequently usher in the age of the blockbuster.

After the success of APOCALYPSE NOW, Coppola sought to make the exact opposite kind of film– a breezy, low-budget musical filmed entirely on soundstages.  This project, entitled ONE FROM THE HEART (1982), was originally supposed to be made for only two million dollars– a mere fraction of the sum that consumed APOCALYPSE NOW.

y the time Coppola finished shooting, however, the costs had ballooned to over twenty-five million.  The film had become an albatross of a distinctively different breed.

ONE FROM THE HEART’s story is very minimal, instead choosing to focus its attentions on lavish set design, lighting, and visual trickery.  The plot is set in Las Vegas, where a young, unmarried couple– Hank (Frederic Forrest) and Frannie (Teri Garr)– have reached a point of mutual dissatisfaction in their relationship.  Following an explosive argument, they set out into the night, intent on finding comfort in the embrace of new lovers.

Frannie finds herself in the bed of Ray (Raul Julia), a smooth-talking Latin lover and aspiring crooner, while Hank takes up with Leila (Nastassja Kinski), an alluring circus girl with a bohemian bent.  Throughout the course of the night, Hank and Frannie’s separate encounters lead them to believe that maybe they do really still love each other after all, and that love is worth fighting for.

It’s a story we’ve all seen a million times, but we’ve never seen it done quite like this.  The performances, while admirable, inevitably sink underneath the weight of Coppola and production designer Dean Tavoularis’ heavily-stylized mise-en-scene.  Forrest, a Coppola regular who had previously played Chef in APOCALYPSE NOW, now takes center stage and assumes the affectation of a young Marlon Brando in his brutish, blue-collar take on Hank.

Garr is energetic and makes the most of her comic abilities as the jaded, temperamental Frannie.  Julia and Kinksi do a great job of being attractive and exotically-alluring characters, each with their distinct charms.  Rounding out the cast, Lainie Kazan plays Maggie, a friend and confidant of Frannie’s, and veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton (who had previously played a bit part for Coppola in THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)) plays Moe, Hank’s curly-haired and leisure-suited best friend.

Despite the tired story tropes and underdeveloped characters, Coppola crafts an unforgettable look that’s based around an overarching theatre conceit.  Coppola famously eschewed location shooting, choosing instead to shoot the entirety of ONE FROM THE HEART on soundstages.  In this regard, the central conceit is the film’s biggest success.

Returning Director of Photography Vittori Storaro (working with Ronald V. Garcia) fills Tavoularis’ beautifully-designed sets with cathedral-esque shafts of neon light and striking bursts of color.  Coppola and his twin DPs have adopted an unusual aspect ratio (1.37:1), but it’s a little unclear as to why– perhaps it’s to further Coppola’s visual conceit by evoking the literal, square proscenium of traditional theatre.  This is further supplemented by real-time lighting changes not unlike one would see in a stage play.

Why take this visual approach, especially when it was largely responsible for extreme budget overruns?  I suspect that Coppola was actively trying to evoke what it truly feels like to fall in love– that is, finding beauty and theatricality in the everyday and mundane.  Romantic love brings heightened emotions that, upon future reflection, tend to take on an idealized, slightly surreal quality.  If this was indeed his intention, Coppola absolutely nails it.

Ever the experimentalist, Coppola continues his pursuit of redefining the cinematic language that was so eloquently established by his cinematic forebear, Sergei Eisenstein.    Besides the aforementioned proscenium conceit and in-camera lighting changes, Coppola plays with double exposures, as well as parallel action being projected onto the set to portray simultaneous events (as opposed to the more traditional cross-cutting).

This approach also extends to the music, where it eschews the traditional definition of a musical by denying the characters of song or dance.  Instead, the musicality comes non-diagetically, from the smoky, unmistakeable vocal chords of Tom Waits.  In his first original film score, Waits crafts a moody, jazzy sound resembling old torch songs that perfectly evokes the Las Vegas setting and Coppola’s melancholy musings on love.  It’s not for everyone, but it’s undeniable how well it actually works within the film.

If APOCALYPSE NOW saw Coppola at the height of his directorial powers, ONE FROM THE HEART is the first work in a long, drawn-out decline that would see his influence severely weakened.  Much like how Cimino’s excesses and self-indulgence on HEAVEN’S GATE led to box office disaster and the sinking of United Artists, ONE FROM THE HEART performed abysmally in theatres— forcing Coppola to declare bankruptcy.

It was a steep fall for a director who had been heretofore regarded as untouchable.  The majority of his output for the ensuing two decades were primarily efforts to pay back the massive debt he incurred on ONE FROM THE HEART.  To this day, his reputation has never fully recovered; not even a third GODFATHER film, shot in 1990, could restore him to former glory.

Thankfully, time heals all wounds, and all the venom spewed at and around the film upon its release has largely fallen away.  What remains is the film itself, left to stand on its own merits.  In this light, ONE FROM THE HEART is still a heavily flawed film, but its remarkable vision is creatively executed with considerable flair by a director firmly in command of his craft.  You have to hand it to Coppola: the man makes even failing look fantastic.


THE OUTSIDERS (1983)

I, like millions of other American kids, read S.E. Hinton’s teen angst novel The Outsiders in a high school English class and identified with it.  My favorite part of reading a novel in English class, however, was getting to watch the movie adaptation afterwards, which would always eat up a couple days of class.  Naturally, we watched Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 adaptation, which I remember quite liking at the time.  If memory serves me right, that might have even been the first time I had seen a Coppola film.

Thirty years after its release, Coppola’s THE OUTSIDERS has aged somewhat well, but certainly feels dated in that it’s rooted to a particular place and time.  The film was a modest success for Coppola, albeit a much needed one after the nuclear bomb that was ONE FROM THE HEART (1982).  It would be a crowning gem in any director’s body of work, but considering Coppola’s exceptionally strong oeuvre, it becomes a minor work at best.

The film adaptation of THE OUTSIDERS got its start when Coppola received a letter from a Fresno middle school.  The letter, penned by a teacher and signed by all her students, implored Coppola to turn the classic novel about lost innocence into a feature film.  Moved by this unique display, Coppola secured the rights to the novel and began production.

We’re all familiar with the story: the constant battling between the Soc’s– the well-heeled, preppy rich kids– and the Greasers– the poor kids from the the wrong side of the tracks– and how it manifests in a tragedy that claims casualties on both sides.  At the center of all this is Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell), a sensitive young man who aspires to something better than his hardscrabble existence.

In this midwestern town in the 1950’s, the teenage social constructs are boiled down to two distinct classes:  the haves and the have-nots.  It may be an unrealistically simplistic concept (after all, Hinton was only sixteen years old when she wrote the novel), but the story’s power is derived from the cultural cache these archetypes bring.  The stakes couldn’t be any more meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but in their world, every altercation means life or death.

The strongest thing about the film, by far, is the casting.  Coppola and producer Fred Roos assembled a pitch-perfect ensemble of the era’s brightest up-and-comers.  It’s fascinating to see so many well-established and respected stars as fresh-faced kids, full of optimism and energy. The aforementioned Howell is compelling to watch as Ponyboy, and his lack of star power is actually beneficial for serving as the audience’s point of entry into this strange, yet familiar world.

Matt Dillon is pitch perfect as Dallas, a hotheaded delinquent who serves as a role model to the more impressionable minds of the group.  Ralph Macchio, of KARATE KID fame, plays Johnny with the appropriate scruffiness and skittishness.  The late Patrick Swayze, by far the oldest of the cast, is thoroughly convincing as Darrel,  Ponyboy’s brother, guardian, and father-figure all rolled up into one.

Rounding out the cast are a mix of faces who were at the time just breaking out into the mainstream.  For many, this was their debut feature film.  This was certainly the case for Rob Lowe, who played the middle brother of the Curtis clan, Sodapop.  Lowe is energetic and sensitive like his younger brother, but unfortunately saw the majority of his screen time cut in the theatrical release.

Martin Sheen’s son, Emilio Estevez, plays Two-Bit, the Mickey Mouse T-shirt-wearing jester of the group.  Tom Cruise, baring a truly hideous set of crooked teeth, brings a manic, wild energy to his depiction of Steve.  Then there’s the inimitable Diane Lane as Cherry, an insightful Soc who bridges the gap and finds common ground with the Greasers.  In a film filled with heavy doses of male braggadocio, she’s a welcome bit of femininity and elegant grace.

Coppola eschews any extravagant aesthetic styling in favor of a toned-down, realistic approach.  As lensed by Director of Photography Stephen H. Burum, Coppola paints the rusted-out industrial environs of midcentury Tulsa, OK with a saturated, yet natural color palette and a high-key, noir-ish lighting scheme.

Interpreting the subject matter as somewhat of a rockabilly version of Victor Fleming’s GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), Coppola adopts the panoramic 2:35:1 aspect ratio and covers a fair amount of action with sweeping dolly movements.  This approach also extends to more stylish flourishes like projected backgrounds (the infamous “stay gold” sunset sequence draws many visual comparisons to the romantic cinematography of GONE WITH THE WIND).

As far as Coppola’s visual execution goes, THE OUTSIDERS is pretty straightforward.  There’s no discernible attempt at experimentation, save for Coppola’s affection for double-exposed, multi-layered images.  He peppers a few shots throughout the film that feature the subject in extreme close-up and a background element in wide shot, yet both are in equal focus.

This is indicative of Coppola’s attempts to push the boundaries of cinematic language, and he accomplished these tricky shots by using a split-field diopter on the camera lens, which works not unlike a pair of bifocals.  Other recurring visual elements, like the smoky park in which Dallas meets his violent end, and an on-camera appearance by musician Tom Waits, hark back to previous Coppola films by virtue of their inclusion.

Coppola’s use of technology as a tool to further his storytelling was also incorporated into an extensive rehearsal process before the shoot.  Video was a nascent medium in the early 1980’s, and Coppola was bullish about its benefits.  He incorporated video’s primary usefulness at the time– cheap image recording– to document the rehearsals, effectively constructing a video version of the entire film.  Yes, he was so excited about the ease of video shooting that he managed to shoot the entire film on video before he even began making the film itself.

Also consistent with Coppola’s previous films, THE OUTSIDERS is a family affair.  The aforementioned Estevez is Martin Sheen’s son, who we all remember played Captain Willard in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).    Coppola’s own (late) son, Gian-Carlo Coppola, served as a producer on the film alongside Roos, Kim Aubry, and Gray Frederickson.

Coppola also enlisted his father, Carmine Coppola, once again for score duties.  Coppola the elder crafts a rocking/surfer vibe for his score, which complements the rebelliousness of the central characters.  Coppola the younger also included a mix of well-known rock tunes, like Van Morrison’s “Gloria”, as well as commissioned the  original ballad from Stevie Wonder that opens the film.

THE OUTSIDERS was severely cut upon its release in order to have a more palatable running time.  When Coppola again began receiving letters asking for a version of the movie that more resembled the book, he took it to heart.  In 2005, he unboxed the original negatives and put back in an additional twenty-five minutes.  He also replaced a great deal of Carmine Coppola’s original score with a variety of prerecorded rock tracks that give the film a distinct, entirely new flavor.

This alternate cut, known as The Complete Novel, now appears to have supplanted the original cut as Coppola’s preferred vision of the film.  The new cut was greeted with a great deal of praise and appreciation, not the least of which was by actor Rob Lowe, who saw the vast majority of his cut footage reintegrated into the film and his character’s importance boosted.

THE OUTSIDERS has aged only slightly since its release, but what struck me most upon revisiting the film is that it seems like it belongs somewhere within Coppola’s pre-GODFATHER early work, as opposed to his mid-career efforts.  It’s much more simplistic as a film, and there’s no grandiose statements about the nature of the American experience as there in his other adaptations of novels like THE GODFATHER (1972) or APOCALYPSE NOW.

In short, it’s a small story about male camaraderie and the deep bond formed in moments of crisis.  It’s unpretentiousness is one of its strongest points– offering an earnest, optimistic point of view that captures the boundless energy of teenage life.

In watching THE OUTSIDERS, I was briefly transported back to my first encounters with the material in high school, and I found myself waxing nostalgic about the good old days… a time where everything was simpler and affairs of the heart consumed every waking thought and desire.  I suspect this was Coppola’s intention all along, to return us to a more innocent place and time, in hopes that we’ll reconnect with the rambunctious child that still lives deep inside ourselves.  If that was indeed his intention, then THE OUTSIDERS is truly a success.


RUMBLE FISH (1983)

In 1983, director Francis Ford Coppola found himself in Tulsa, OK, and in the middle of a creative hot streak.  Midway into the production of THE OUTSIDERS (1983), Coppola approached the novel’s author S.E. Hinton, and asked if she had any other works he could adapt.

Hinton responded with Rumble Fish, an avant-garde, misunderstood novel that had failed to gain the kind of wide audience that The Outsiders did.  After Coppola read the book, he decided that not only was it going to be his next film, but that he’d film it back to back with THE OUTSIDERS, utilizing the same Tulsa locale and much of that film’s cast and crew.

Released later on in 1983, Coppola’s adaption was not met with the same kind of critical and financial success that THE OUTSIDERS enjoyed.  In fact, it sunk Coppola ever lower into debt and threw the existence of his independent studio, American Zoetrope, into jeopardy.

The film’s stylized, avant-garde aesthetic also turned off a lot of fans and critics, as it was so strikingly different from his previous work.  Like much of Coppola’s misunderstood work, however, it has gained a deep appreciation and a cult following in the years since its release.

RUMBLE FISH’s story isn’t immediately clear upon first viewing; indeed it strikes one as much more of an exercise in style-over-substance.  Set in an unnamed Midwestern industrial town in the 50’s or 60’s, the story revolves around a headstrong wanna-be hood, Rusty James (Matt Dillon), who spends his nights romancing the pretty, preppy Patty (Diane Lane), and engaging in wild rumbles with the town’s various miscreants.

One day, his older brother—known only as Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke)—returns to town after a long excursion into California.  Rusty James wants nothing more than to be just like his older brother, but Motorcycle Boy is old enough to realize the error of his ways, and finds it a difficult task to discourage his brother from following in his footsteps before it’s too late.

What’s lacking in story is more than compensated for by the brawny, muscular performances from Coppola’s young cast.  Dillon, taking on the lead role right after his work in THE OUTSIDERS, channels a juvenile delinquent of a different breed as Rusty James.

His is an idealistic machismo, and he’s set on proving his worth as a man through violent brawls and burning through the town’s supply of women.  In one of his earliest starring roles, Dillon proves to be a veritable force of nature.

Mickey Rourke, looking trim and handsome in his pre-boxing/hamburger-face years, goes against expectations with his portrayal of Motorcycle Boy.  Rourke is sensitive, quiet, and observant.  He speaks softly, but can be absolutely ferocious when need be.

  Motorcycle Boy is a deeply troubled character, haunted by unseen eternal demons that manifest themselves in colorblindness, occasional deafness, and bouts of withdrawn melancholy.  It’s a fine, pulpy performance that belies Rourke’s tough exterior.

The supporting cast is filled out with regular collaborators and faces new to the Coppola fold.  Diane Lane joins Dillon in hopping right from production on THE OUTSIDERS to play Patty, a teenage schoolgirl with a sultry, tempestuous temperament.

Two old friends from 1979’s APOCALPYSE NOW—Dennis Hopper and Laurence Fishburne—also join the fray.  Hopper plays Rourke and Dillon’s father, who’s a crazy-eyed, shambling drunk of a man—the kind of character Hopper can play in his sleep.

Fishburne, having physically filled out dramatically in the four years since APOCALYPSE NOW, is nearly unrecognizable as Midgit, a well-dressed confidante of Rusty James’, who may just be a figment of his imagination.

Then there’s Nicolas Cage and the late Chris Penn, in small roles that serve to challenge Rusty James’ self-proclaimed authority.   In keeping with Coppola’s tradition of casting family in his films, the bouffant-ed Cage (Coppola’s nephew) makes his film debut with RUMBLE FISH, and it appears he was just as loony and eccentric as he is now.

Furthermore, Coppola’s daughter, Sofia, appears in her own bit role as Patty’s kid sister.  What’s immediately apparent about RUMBLE FISH’s artistic merits is its bracing visual style.  Filmed on 35mm black-and-white film stock (to emulate Motorcycle Boy’s color blindness), Coppola and returning Director of Photography Stephen H. Burum craft a look unlike anything in Coppola’s body of work.

Drawing equally from the handheld, verite aesthetic of the French New Wave and the high-key, stylized chiaroscuro of German Expressionism, Coppola’s neo-noir is a hallucinogenic blend of realism and fantasy.  Clouds scream past along the sky while characters look up at them in wonder—a trick achieved using timelapse photography to suggest that time is lost on the young, moving much faster than they might realize.

The monotone look highlights the raw, sweaty nature of Burum’s cinematography, which is peppered with bursts of striking color whenever the titular “rumble fish” make an onscreen appearance.

This striking dichotomy is evident in two scenes in particular: the violent rumble that introduces Motorcycle Boy, and a wild romp through a downtown pool hall.  The brawl sequence, choreographed by a professional dancer, is almost elegant in its ballet of blood, punctuated by flashes of lightning and daring feats of acrobatics.

It’s an incredibly expressionistic sequence that calls to mind the laboratory creation sequence from James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931), albeit on LSD.  The second sequence –more Cassavetes than Murnau– plays fast and loose with its camerawork in capturing the feel of a booze-soaked night on the town.  The sequence takes on the air of documentary, finding fleeting moments of unscripted interaction and revelry that could never be truly replicated with traditional methods.

Music, provided by composer Stewart Copeland, is equally as baroque and avant-garde.  It perverts the sound and conceits of rock-and-roll music into a fevered cavalcade of percussion that ramps up our anxiety, much like how the restless Rusty James must feel en route to a brawl.

This bizarre blend of picture and sound alienated a lot of people when RUMBLE FISH was released.  Many claimed that Coppola had gone too far in his attempts to deconstruct the art form and reassemble it in his own vision.

I can certainly see that argument, but I view the look as a shot in the arm for the medium during a period of time that saw a relatively flat, bland aesthetic become the commercial standard-bearer.  I know that I’m not alone in that assessment—its influences can be seen in a wide variety of subsequent works by then-burgeoning directors, most notably in Gus Vant Sant’s breakout debut, MALA NOCHE (1986).

There are a few other curious elements that peg RUMBLE FISH as distinctly Coppola’s.  There’s the aforementioned use of family members in the cast (and recruiting of sons Gian-Carlo and Roman in producing roles), but there’s also his copious use of smoke during expressionistic sequences, and a highly experimental sound design that calls to mind the inner psychedelics of APOCALYPSE NOW.

RUMBLE FISH also sees Coppola’s continuation of a unique preproduction process that he dubbed Electric Cinema, where he used green-screen technology to shoot his rehearsals against photographs or rough sketches of the location to create a full version of the film on video before production even began.

Is it a needlessly complex process?  Maybe.  Especially in a time where video often  equals the quality of film, the idea might now seem quaint and extraneous, but the benefits of an involving rehearsal process is really apparent in RUMBLE FISH’S final product.

I think there’s something to be said in the fact that, even after all the critical trashing and financial disappointment, RUMBLE FISH is in Coppola’s top five favorite films of his own.  Time has divorced the film from its overshadowing companion piece and given it an identity all its own.

It’s not for everyone, to be sure, and even those who give it a shot will find it an acquired taste at first.  At the end of the day, the film is an instance of a supremely gifted director using his substantial resources to carry out his full vision, without any regard for how eccentric it might appear.  In that regard, RUMBLE FISH is a piece of pure, unadulterated pop art by a strong-willed director who refuses to become complacent.


THE COTTON CLUB (1984)

There is a club in downtown Los Angeles called the Cicada Club, and stepping inside its doors is like crossing the threshold into another era.  Inside these walls, it’s as if time froze around 1944—the art deco architecture is pristine and polished, the live music is appropriately old-timey, and the clientele are impeccably dressed in tuxedos, zoot suits, and WWII army uniforms.

The effect is like stepping into that infamous photograph at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980).   The Cicada Club is a hidden diamond in downtown’s rough, and I would never have known it ever existed if my girlfriend hadn’t been dancing there for the past few years.

THE COTTON CLUB (1984), director Francis Ford Coppola’s follow-up to his twin 1983 S.E. Hinton adaptations THE OUTSIDERS and RUMBLE FISH, very much plays in the same world as the Cicada Club, so much so that I couldn’t help but wonder if the film directly inspired the Cicada’s creation.

The film marks something of a return to form for Coppola, who was working from a script originally written by the creator of THE GODFATHER (1972), Mario Puzo.   Finding its origins in the oral history of the real-life Harlem club of the same name, THE COTTON CLUB was shepherded by THE GODFATHER producer Robert Evans, who brought Coppola onboard, despite his financial troubles following ONE FROM THE HEART’s(1982) bombing at the box office.

The film’s story dealt with organized crime and corruption in an opulent New York setting, which seemed like a perfect chance for Coppola to recapture some of that GODFATHER charm and success.

THE COTTON CLUB is set in Jazz-era Harlem, 1928.  Dixie Dywer (Richard Gere) is a promising cornet soloist who catches the attention of a local crime lord, Dutch (James Remar) and his emotionally cold flapper moll, Vera Cicero (Diane Lane).

As Dixie’s reputation as a talented musician grows, he soon finds himself the star of a hit Hollywood movie where he plays a ruthless mob boss.   This makes Dutch furious, as he believes Dixie’s performance is a thinly-veiled parody of himself.  When Dixie falls for Vera, Dutch declares open war on his former employee, and the Cotton Club is caught in the middle of the crossfire.

The film boasts several great performances from a committed cast, albeit the characterizations tend to be a little bit on the cartoonish side.  Gere is well-cast as the talented musician at the center of the story, bearing a pencil-thin mustache with suave confidence and righteous virtue.

His dedication even went as far as learning to play the cornet at an advanced level.  James Remar shaved back his hairline to resemble Al Capone in his portrayal of the crime boss Dutch.  The veteran character actor gives his antagonist a crazy-eyed stare, with a ferocious, murderous unpredictability.

Caught between these two men is femme fatale Diane Lane, who is on her third consecutive Coppola collaboration.  A woman firmly of her time, Diane’s Vera Cicero flashes the latest in flapper fashion as she uses her feminine wiles to advance her station in life, ultimately taking possession of a nightclub all her own.  She’s ambitious, feisty, and street-smart, which makes her attractiveness undeniable.

Filling out the cast are a variety of faces, many of which have been seen in previous Coppola films.  There’s his nephew Nicolas Cage as Vincent “Mad Dog” Dwyer, Dixie’s ambitious brother whose impatience is his undoing.  Laurence Fishburne makes his third Coppola appearance as Bumpy Rhodes, an enforcer for Harlem’s black elite.

Tom Waits also pops up as a programmer and emcee for entertainment at the club.  (I think there’s something interesting to observe in Coppola’s aesthetic with his continued inclusion of Lane, Fishburne, and Waits, but I’m not sure what that might be exactly). New to the Coppola talent fold are Gregory Hines, Lonette McKee, Bob Hoskins, and Jennifer Grey.

Hines plays Sandman Williams, a gifted tap dancer and hopeless romantic, with McKee as the target of his affections.  Hoskins plays Owney Madden, the owner of the Cotton Club with a firm authority over the feuding crimelords that frequent his establishment.  Jennifer Grey, who you may recognize as Matthew Broderick’s vindictive sister from FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986), plays Cage’s young, unmannered wife.

Stephen Goldblatt, Tony Scott’s Director of Photography for THE HUNGER (1983), finds himself in Coppola’s employ for THE COTTON CLUB, which sees a refreshing of talent behind the camera in many major departments.  Shooting on 35mm film, Goldblatt creates a reserved aesthetic that could be read as more of a stylized take on THE GODFATHER’s visual look.

The 1.85:1 frame draws from a brown, black, and red color palette that’s appropriately saturated to reflect the earth-tone patina of Richard Sylbert’s production design (who takes over for Coppola’s frequent Art Director Dean Tavoularis).  Coppola tells the story of THE COTTON CLUB with handheld and steadicam-based camera movements that complement the traditional photography, and he even throws in a few dutch angles for variety.

John Barry, he of James Bond fame, comes aboard as THE COTTON CLUB’s musical maestro.  Using a variety of string, woodwind and brass instruments, Barry’s score evokes the old Hollywood sound of The Jazz Age, which is also reflected in the many live musical performances that run the gamut from ragtime to swing.  There’s a distinct musicality to the film, which lends a unique vigor and firm sense of place and time.

Given its relative obscurity, THE COTTON CLUB is an unexpectedly strong work.  It performed terribly at the box office upon release, but was nominated for two Oscars (One for Sybert’s production design, and the other for editors Robert Lovett and Barry Malkin).

It channels Coppola’s strengths in the organized crime genre, and even has a few moments where it recalls the genius construction of THE GODFATHER, most notably in Dutch’s murder sequence towards the end.   This is further evidenced by Coppola’s collaboration with GODFATHER producer Robert Evans—although the two apparently had a falling out during production and Coppola banned Evans from set altogether.

There isn’t much in the way of personal development as a filmmaker on Coppola’s end.  Despite the inclusion of a few signature elements like double exposed frames, and an experimental sound design (one scene takes a diagetic tap-dancing performance and uses it as non-diagetic score in a parallel cross-cut scene occurring elsewhere), THE COTTON CLUB feels like it could have been made by a number of other filmmakers.

THE GODFATHER influences signify the film as distinctly Coppola-esque, but the slightly cartoonish treatment of the characters and violence suggests instead the vision of a director influenced by Coppola.  Like much of Coppola’s output in the 80’s and 90’s, it was made not because of a genuine ambition, but to reduce Coppola’s significant debt at the time.

THE COTTON CLUB, while not having aged as well as some of his other work, is a strong and underrated film   However, it pales in comparison to Coppola’s groundbreaking 70’s work, which was always going to be a tough act to follow.  But, if anyone can do it, it’s the man himself.

By this point in his career, Coppola was still a young man, with plenty of time to recapture glory—if only he could dig himself out of the hole opened up by his indulgences.


CAPTAIN EO (1986)

Following the middling reception of 1984’s THE COTTON CLUB, director Francis Ford Coppola found himself slowly but steadily pulling out of the debt spiral that began with 1982’s ONE FROM THE HEART.  Coppola could not afford to rest on his laurels, needing to work consistently to pay off said debt.

As his next feature film project began to take the shape of 1986’s PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, Coppola first would tackle a project of a very different kind, one that endeavored to quite literally push the boundaries of cinema.

The mid-80’s was an interesting time to be in media.  Conglomerations like Pepsi and Disney were tapping into American pop culture as a way to shill product.  Michael Jackson, the King of Pop himself, became heavily involved in corporate branding and lent an aura of star power to commercial campaigns.

His collaboration with Disney manifested in a short film/music video that would be played in the mouse house’s various theme parks as part of an integrated “4D” viewing experience.  Titled CAPTAIN EO and originally set to be directed by Steven Spielberg, this experience would incorporate hydraulic seats, scent sprays, synced smoke, lasers, and a variety of other things to create an immersive ride that went beyond 3D’s stereoscopic imaging.

The script was co-written by Coppola’s friend George Lucas, who by this point had already completed his groundbreaking STAR WARS TRILOGY and was well familiar with spaced-based swashbuckling action.  After Spielberg dropped out, Lucas’ old buddy seemed like a good bet to helm a project whose presentation lay in uncharted territory.

Due to its elaborate presentation, the story was appropriately simplified to feature Michael Jackson as Captain Eo, a brave space traveller who guides his crew to a dark, industrial planet in an attempt to breathe new life into its inhabitants with the help of music and dance.

Jackson’s crew is populated by a variety of space-age Muppets, a robot, and a stop-motion animation butterfly/rat thing.  Anjelica Huston is nearly unrecognizable as the Supreme Leader, Eo’s main antagonist.  The Supreme Leader’s makeup and costume design is one of the strongest points of the film, fusing a cyberpunk aesthetic with the machinations of a spider.

While frequent Coppola cinematographer Vittorio Storaro apparently served as a lighting director, Peter Anderson gets the cinematographer credit for CAPTAIN EO.  Anderson’s photography effectively captures the saturated, bright colors of Eo’s spaceship and the cold blacks of the Supreme Leader’s lair, in an inspired design from Art Director Geoffrey Kirkland.

Coppola crafts a slightly cheesy, chintzy sci-fi aesthetic that harkens back to his Roger Corman days.  Visual effects are quaint and intentionally shaky-looking, which I suppose adds a degree of charm.   I imagine that experiencing CAPTAIN EO during its run in various Disney theme parks was a sight to behold, but I just so happened to view the film on Youtube, which came from a VHS recording of the only time the film was ever broadcast on TV.

As you can imagine, it looked pretty terrible.  And unless the Mouse House sees fit to release the short to the public, this shitty VHS dub is the best you’re ever going to get.  At seventeen minutes long, CAPTAIN EO is basically one big music video.

And at a cost of $1 million dollars per minute of finished film, it also ranks as one of the most expensive films ever made (on a minute-by-minute basis).  For those accustomed to the idea of Coppola as the esteemed auteur behind THE GODFATHER (1972), watching CAPTAIN EO comes as somewhat of a shock.

It may even come off as a desperate, pathetic money grab on Coppola’s part—another rung lower in the fall from greatness.   Personally, I see the film fitting quite comfortably into Coppola’s oeuvre, albeit in unexpected ways.

Coppola’s career-long pursuit of redefining cinematic language is given a rigorous exercise with the demands of an immersive theme park theatrical presentation.  Not only did Coppola have to rely on sound and image to tell his story, but motion and smell as well.  It’s a literal bursting forth from the constraining proscenium wall that had so beautifully contained his ideas in ONE FROM THE HEART.

Watching the film now, CAPTAIN EO feels inescapably dated, as if it were a forgotten relic of 1980’s pop culture.  It enjoyed a brief resurgence when it was brought back to Disney theme parks in tribute form following Michael Jackson’s death in 2010, but the very nature of its conception means it can never be truly timeless like most of Coppola’s other works.

That is the nature of pop—an art form that is so focused on being “of the moment” that it completely overlooks the fact that the chosen moment passes by all too quickly.  At least Coppola’s foray into pop commanded a collaboration with no less than the King himself.


PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986)

Director Francis Ford Coppola spent the majority of the 1980’s taking on for-hire film work featuring commercially-viable stories as a way to erase the debt suffered by 1982’s box office disaster ONE FROM THE HEART.  Unfortunately, most of these films were hit-or-miss themselves, and the infallible talent that gave us THE GODFATHER (1972) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) now seemed to be washed up, all of its promise drained.

The year 1986 saw a brief respite for Coppola, in the form of a feature film called PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED.  While not a particularly great film, it was enjoyable and channeled a certain nostalgia for midcentury Americana to modest box office gains.  Indeed, the film’s upbeat, optimistic tone mirrored the fact that things were looking up for Coppola, for the first time in years.

PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED is a dramatic comedy about a faded beauty named Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner), who is anxious about attending her high school class reunion after a bitter divorce from her appliance baron husband Charlie Bodell (Nicolas Cage).

When she’s crowned reunion queen (that’s a thing?), she faints during the coronation.  She wakes up, only to find that she’s back in the year 1960, and back in high school.  Blessed with the knowledge of what the future will bring, she relishes the chance to connect with long-dead family members and tries to reconfigure her romantic life to avoid her eventual marriage to boyfriend Charlie.  However, she learns that even a second chance at youth can’t change fate.

It’s a powerful question: if you had a second chance to re-live your youth, what would you do differently?  Coppola’s cast gamely explores this conceit through wry characterization that must be presented differently in two distinct timeframes.

As the central character, Turner changes gradually in a conventional arc, much like Jimmy Stewart’s character in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946).  The weary Peggy Sue starts the film as a shell of her former self, reluctant to engage old friends because of the natural life-comparison that occurs at reunions.

Throughout the film, her dalliances with a mysterious young beatnik and a reconnection with her immediate family changes her outlook, making her cognizant of the true value of the people in her adult life.

Coppola continues his collaboration with his nephew Nicolas Cage, who plays Peggy Sue’s estranged husband Charlie Bodell.  A complete goober of a man, Charlie is presented as a schlubby, has-been appliance tycoon, but the past sequences show an outrageously energetic, wildly-bouffanted young man that aspires to fame and riches as a doo-wop singer.

Those who take delight in Cage’s eccentric characterizations will find themselves satisfied in PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED—Cage adopts a strange vocal inflection for his character that’s nasally and off-putting.  Coppola almost fired his own nephew over the voice, but somehow Cage argued his case and it stayed.  The jury’s still out on whether it actually works or not, however.

The supporting cast is filled out with a variety of fresh faces that have since gone on to fame in their own right.  A young Helen Hunt and Joan Allen make appearances as Peggy Sue’s daughter and high school friend, respectively.

The most interesting bit of casting is a young Jim Carrey, who steals his scenes as class clown Walter Getz.  This is Carrey even before his IN LIVING COLOR days; that unmistakable gawkiness blessed with the elasticity of youth.  It’s really quite wild to see.

PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED is one of Coppola’s most straightforward-looking films.  Shot on 35mm film and lensed by legendary Director of Photography Jordan Cronenweth, Coppola paints his idyllic Americana setting in naturally saturated and bright colors.

Camerawork is non-intrusive, objectively and sedately capturing Coppola and returning Production Designer Dean Tavoularis’ midcentury rockabilly aesthetic.  One might say it’s bland photography, but it effectively sets the tone of the story and allows the performances to take center stage.

For the music, Coppola once again collaborates with Bond composer John Barry, who creates a lushly romantic score with traditional string instruments.  Like 1983’S THE OUTSIDERS before it, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED also boasts a selection of classic rock-and-roll hits from acts like Buddy Holly, who sings the song from which the film takes its name.

Overall, there’s not a lot to the film that classifies it as distinctly Coppola’s.  The only dead giveaway is the inclusion of his daughter Sofia as Peggy Sue’s kid sister.  There’s a distinct lack of experimentation, which gives a rather anonymous quality to the direction, but perhaps that is why the film was so well-received.

The age of Reagan wasn’t a particularly progressive time, so it makes sense that a box office hit could be achieved by playing it safe.  But in doing so, Coppola is able to zero in on what makes a film like this work—emotion—and scores his first bonafide hit in years.


FAERIE TALE THEATRE: “RIP VAN WINKLE” EPISODE (1987)

In the year 1982, actress Shelly Duvall began producing a television series called FAERIE TALE THEATRE.  Originally conceived as a nourishing antidote to commercial-heavy children’s programming, Duvall and company set out to create a series of fairy tale retellings with lavish vision and elaborate production design.

I like to think she started it to reclaim some assurance in the natural goodness of the world after Stanley Kubrick tormented her to the point of insanity on the set of THE SHINING (1980).

In 1987, the show began its sixth and final season with a retelling of the legend of Rip Van Winkle.  Director Francis Ford Coppola, still struggling to climb a mountain of debt, signed on to direct his friend Harry Dean Stanton in the title role.

Despite the depressing nature of this development, Stanton and Coppola really give their all to the charmingly cheesy children’s show.  It has aged terribly in the time since—its handcrafted set designs don’t hold up against the hyper-bright colors of LCD televisions—but what remains is a fascinating look at how far children’s programming has become, if not saying much in the way of Coppola’s directorial development.

We’re all familiar with the tale of Rip Van Winkle, who went to sleep as a young man and woke up twenty years later as an old man.  Told over the course of an hour, Coppola’s RIP VAN WINKLE fleshes out the story significantly, adding in an interesting dramatic through-line by placing the action in the Catskills of New York in the mid-1700s.

We first meet Van Winkle as a lazy oaf of a man that has to endure his screeching wife (Coppola’s sister Talia Shire) and her attempts to get him to do some work around the house.  One day, he wanders out into the mountains and happens across a band of pirates, or ghosts, or something.

They all end up having a merry time, get Van Winkle drunk, and he passes out.  When he wakes, it’s twenty years later and everyone he knows (save for his son) is dead.  To make things even more confusing, his country has seemingly changed hands overnight into the United States of America, and his loyalty to King George puts him at great odds with the patriotic townspeople.

Coming in six seasons deep, I can’t imagine Coppola had much of a say in the visual look of the show.  The series, or at least the episode I watched, seems to use a theatrical proscenium conceit much like Coppola used in ONE FROM THE HEART (1982).

This is supplemented by the lighting, which is heavily colored and stylized to match the intended mood.  Elaborate, hand-crafted backdrops and costumes populate the 4:3 television frame, and a crude version of green-screen visual effects seem to be employed to further add to the whimsical-ness.

Interestingly enough, RIP VAN WINKLE seems to be Coppola’s first brush with video as a finishing format (he had previously shot full versions of 1983’s THE OUTSIDERS and RUMBLE FISH on video using only rehearsal footage).  The magical-sounding music is provided by Carmine Coppola, Francis’ father, in what is yet another family affair for the seasoned director.

RIP VAN WINKLE is similar to 1986’s CAPTAIN EO short, in that Coppola indulges a cheesy, shambled aesthetic that seems considerably beneath someone of Coppola’s cinematic stature.  It’s a forgettable foray into disposable programming, and another relic in the video-tinged graveyard that was 80’s pop culture.

It’s a curious move by Coppola, but people will do some weird shit for cash. At least he continues to keep us on our toes.  And hey, a young Chris Penn is in it too.  I guess that’s something.  FAERIE TALE THEATRE: RIP VAN WINKLE is currently available on Hulu Plus, or you can watch it all on Youtube via the embed above.


GARDENS OF STONE (1987)

The 1980’s could read like a lost decade for director Francis Ford Coppola.  After the career coronation that was 1979’s APOCALYPSE NOW, there seemed to be nowhere else for Coppola to go but down.  Most of his films from this period are either regarded as outright disasters or merely forgettable.

  However, time has allowed these films to become removed from the context of their releases, and objective conclusions are easier reached.  As such, many of his lesser films are in a prime position for re-evaluation and tend to be better than most remember.

The year 1987 saw the release of GARDENS OF STONE, Coppola’s follow-up to the surprise hit PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986).  His first real heavy drama in more than a decade, Coppola channels the reserved vision of THE GODFATHER (1972) and THE CONVERSATION (1974) to tell the somber story of a tight-knit group of soldiers who stayed behind in America during the Vietnam War to bury those who came back in body bags.

  It’s a handsome-looking film, devoid of indulgent flash or a sense of self-importance.  As a result, GARDENS OF STONE—while not terribly well-received upon release—is a rare glimpse at the dynamo filmmaker Coppola had been a decade before, and is perhaps the strongest film to come out of that period in his career.

Returning to the emotional fallout of a war that he had previously explored in APOCALYPSE NOW, Coppola assembles several old friends to help him tell the story.  James Caan, who hadn’t been seen in a Coppola film since 1974’s THE GODFATHER PART II, plays Sergeant Hazard, a lonely military-man who made the army his family after his wife and son left him.

Together with his pal, Sergeant Goody Nelson (James Earl Jones), Hazard leads the members of Fort Meyers’ Old Guard: the stoic soldiers who perform ceremonial duties (like the 21 gun salute) at Arlington Cemetery military funerals.

An ambitious recuit, Jackie Willow (DB Sweeney), soon endears himself as a son-figure to these two old men, and they take an active interest in his development.  They support his desire to go the front lines of Vietnam (despite there not being a front line to speak of), even though they’re well aware of the horrors that await him there.

As the war rages on, the characters will find that holding down the fort at home won’t save them from the emotional turmoil of Vietnam.  GARDENS OF STONE is a return to form for Coppola, especially in his ability to command arresting performances.

There’s not an ounce of the hotheaded, cocksure Sonny Corleone in Caan’s portrayal of a middle-aged man who finds that marriage to the military isn’t exactly fulfilling.  Anjelica Huston, fresh off her collaboration with Coppola in 1986’s CAPTAIN EO, plays Samantha Davis—a middle-aged journalist who manages to dismantle Caan’s armor.

James Earl Jones is a particular delight, in a rare energetic turn that utilizes that lusciously smooth voice of his to charming effect.  I’m so used to seeing him as a grizzled old-man figure, it was arresting to watch him engage in young-man shenanigans like getting plastered and wailing on punks.  Lonette McKee, who previously acted for Coppola in THE COTTON CLUB, plays Jones’ feisty southern belle of a wife.

I wasn’t too familiar with Sweeney’s work before watching GARDENS OF STONE, but he is effective as the wide-eyed young man who naively yearns for glory on exotic battlefields.  It should be noted that this role was originally supposed to be filled by Griffin O’Neal.

However, a boating accident during filming that occurred due to his drug use not only resulted in jail time for him, but more unfortunately, resulted in the death of Coppola’s son and sometime-producing partner, Gian-Carlo.

A few familiar faces from APOCALYPSE NOW return for a PBR-boat reunion of sorts.  Sam Bottoms plays Lt. Weber, albeit he’s not given a terrible lot to do.  Laurence Fishburne, who by this point had become a regular in Coppola’s work, plays Sergeant Flanagan, a gruff drill sergeant at Fort Meyers.

And then there’s Elias Koteas, that absolute favorite character actor of mine, as a young military clerk in a small, early role.  If you were to make a list of all the great directors Koteas has worked with, you would be convinced that he might be the greatest actor to have ever lived.  He’s literally worked with everyone–maybe even more so than Kevin Bacon.

GARDENS OF STONE is a handsomely somber-looking film.  Shot on 35mm in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the film retains the services of legendary cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who shot Coppola’s previous feature.  Subtle, reserved camerawork complements a naturalistic lighting and color scheme, which draws from a palette of forest greens and khaki tones.

The late 60’s setting is recreated in great detail by Coppola’s production designer Dean Tavoularis, without having to resort to an aesthetic that’s not blatantly period.  The subtle, reserved camerawork is appropriate for the film’s serious tone, recalling the visual restraint that made THE GODFATHER so emotionally potent.

Coppola’s father Carmine returns to score the film, utilizing a mix of military-style trumpets and horns (in addition to traditional string arrangements) to create an elegiac mood.  Authentic military hymns are scattered throughout to give a greater insight into the ritualistic world of the story, and the use of modern rock music from The Doors during a bar brawl sequence further conveys the time period while also subtly calling back to APOCALYPSE NOW.

With its militaristic setting and detailed recruit drill sequences, GARDENS OF STONE brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET, which actually came out that same year.  The two films couldn’t be any more different, however.

Whereas FULL METAL JACKET irreverently explores the inherent insanity and inhumanity of war, GARDENS OF STONE examines the emotional fallout that stems from that loss of humanity when (or if) the warriors return home from the battlefield.

There is a heavy sense of loss that pervades the film, visualized by endless rows of white slabs—each one signifying a lost soul taken in the name of their country.  This feeling really hits home due to Coppola’s personal connection to the subject matter.

I mentioned before that his eldest son, Gian-Carlo, was killed during production.  For a film that dwells so much on the experience of death as lived by those left behind, Coppola was able to tap into his own grief and channel it into a cathartic experience.

Family members have always been key collaborators in Coppola’s films, and the institution has always played a large role in the kinds of stories he tells, so it makes sense that the familial themes of GARDENS OF STONE are so prominent and poignant given the circumstances.

We may never know the pain of losing a loved one to armed conflict, but GARDENS OF STONE makes one universal truth quite clear—we will all experience loss at some point.  Unsurprisingly, somber stories about death and sorrow don’t exactly translate to big box office.

GARDENS OF STONE was misunderstood upon its release, bombing both financially and critically, and further adding to Coppola’s spotty track record in the 1980’s.  Today, it remains an under-seen and underappreciated work in his filmography, but it holds up to the ravages of time quite well.

As an elegy for those lost in Vietnam, it’s a sobering experience.  As an artist’s paean to his lost son, it’s devastating.  But ultimately, GARDENS OF STONE is a compelling portrait of a side of war that is seldom seen—the experience of those left behind on the homefront.  GARDENS OF STONE is currently available on standard definition DVD via Mill Creek and Columbia TriStar.


TUCKER: THE MAN & HIS DREAM (1988)

Despite the minor failure of 1987’s GARDENS OF STONE at the box office, director Francis Ford Coppola seemed to be experiencing a second wind.  Spurred on by the loss of his eldest son–a producing partner and car enthusiast– Coppola turned his attentions to a long-gestating passion project about a plucky entrepreneur’s quest to revolutionize the auto industry.

  Titled TUCKER: THE MAN & HIS DREAM (1988), the film was first conceived by Coppola in childhood, and continued to occupy his interest as his career developed.  When it was finally released, the film was met with substantial critical praise that resulted in three Oscar nominations—most notably for Martin Landau in the Supporting Actor category.  Despite poor box office performance, Coppola suddenly found himself relevant again.

Set in Michigan during the year 1945, TUCKER: THE MAN & HIS DREAM tells the story of Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges), a successful businessman and local celebrity who desires to change the car business with an automobile of his own groundbreaking design.  Painted as a virtuous, insightful and gracious family man, Tucker finds his character and his patience tested when disapproving Big Auto tries to shut his entire operation down.

It’s rare nowadays to have a protagonist that is so earnest and optimistic, with nary a character flaw.  It’s a credit to Bridges’ inherent likeability and talent that Tucker comes off as compelling as he does.  Bridges’ Tucker is a natural showman—a visionary with big ideas and an even bigger heart.

  He draws inspiration from such forebears as Thomas Edison, and his obsession with detail plays like a midcentury Steve Jobs.  It’s an energetic, boyishly charming performance that helps sustain the film’s chipper tone without being off-putting to the cynical members of the audience.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else but Bridges playing the part, but interestingly enough, Coppola had initially envisioned the film decades prior with Marlon Brando as the lead.  Joan Allen, who previously worked with Coppola in PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986), has a much larger role to play here as Tucker’s eternally-supportive wife, Vera.

Allen carries herself with an elegant, feminine grace—a grace that gives strength to Tucker in his darkest moments.  Her sharp, porcelain features are easy on the eyes, but admittedly confounding to logic—she doesn’t appear many years older than the actors playing her grown children!

As I mentioned before, venerated character actor Martin Landau was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Abe, Tucker’s grumpy business partner and advisor.  Landau plays the character as an old New York Italian type—one that wouldn’t be out of place in THE GODFATHER series.

His grumpiness soon proves endearing, and he effortlessly becomes one of the film’s shining strengths.  It’s a nomination well-deserved.  Among the faces returning to the Coppola fold are those belonging to Frederick Forrest, Elias Koteas, and Dean Stockwell.

Forrest, who was the lead in 1982’s ONE FROM THE HEART, plays Eddie, another member of Tucker’s team.  His relation to the family isn’t very defined, but it appears that he’s the chief mechanic and a good-natured cynic.  Koteas plays Alex, an ambitious designer who quits the Air Force and shows up on Tucker’s doorstep to ask for a job.

His talented drawings soon earn him a spot as Tucker’s key designer.  Stockwell, who appeared as various bit characters in Coppola films past, assumes the towering personality of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes in a short cameo.

Hughes seems to be an intriguing character in the minds of Coppola’s filmmaking contemporaries.  His close friend, Martin Scorsese, would of course go on to make THE AVIATOR (2004) with Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes during his Spruce Goose era (which also features in this film).

And finally, a baby-faced Christian Slater appears as Tucker’s ambitious son, Junior.  In his big screen debut, Slater shows a lot of promise, and it’s easy to see why he continued working after the fact.  Like Coppola himself, Slater’s talent seemed to fizzle out in middle age as well, and unfortunately Slater has since become more of a direct-to-video punch line than a prestigious actor of note.

Coppola re-enlists frequent Director of Photography Vittorio Storaro to capture the vibrant patina of Tucker’s experience.  The 35mm film is shot in the 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, lending an epic feel to a story about an equally epic life.

Scope is created through the use of sweeping crane shots, and Storaro uses strong yellow key light in several scenes to establish a golden, nostalgic tone.  Many sequences also adopt the conceits of early newsreel films, complete with kitschy black and white documentary footage and an overly earnest voiceover narration.

Production Designer Dean Tavoularis also returns, continuing the midcentury Americana aesthetic that Coppola sustained in his films throughout the 1980’s.  Overall, Coppola and company are able to make such a plucky character like Tucker succeed due to their embrace of an overtly kitschy, tongue-in-cheek tone.

For the music of TUCKER: THE MAN & HIS DREAM, Coppola eschewed his regular collaboration with his father, Carmine, in favor of working with Joe Jackson.  Jackson creates a plucky, big-band sound that fits in with Tucker’s grandiose personality and viewpoint.

The many period details are reinforced with the incorporation of a variety of ragtime and swing source cues that meld well with Jackson’s original score.  The late 1980’s and 1990’s saw Coppola tone down his experimental explorations, but TUCKER: THE MAN & HIS DREAM does feature an interesting new take on that timehonored cinematic shorthand: the split-screen telephone conversation scene.

Instead of simply using an optically-printed line down the middle to separate two simultaneously-occurring moments in space, Coppola uses negative space in the frame as a canvas on which to superimpose the other side of the conversation.

This works substantially better than it sounds in print, trust me.  It’s an intriguing way to subvert one of cinema’s most basic examples of visual shorthand, which can undoubtedly be traced to Coppola’s lifelong attempts to redefine cinematic language.

It’s worth noting that Coppola’s good friend George Lucas is credited as an executive producer.  This simple credit belies a bigger story, where after Coppola’s previous attempts to get the film made had ended in failure, Lucas rescued the project by setting it up at his own production company (Lucasfilm) and financing it himself.

It ultimately became a losing hand for Lucas, as the film fared poorly at the box office.  At least the critics appreciated it; I don’t think Lucas ever lost any sleep over misplacing a couple million dollars.

For our purposes, TUCKER: THE MAN & HIS DREAM is an intriguing insight into Coppola’s psyche, almost like a heavily-disguised biopic of the man himself.  Both men are blessed with large families that they entrust their life’s work with on a regular basis—Tucker creates and executes his designs with his family in his own home, and Coppola frequently utilizes father Carmine, daughter Sofia, sister Talia Shire, nephew Nicholas Cage and others in his films.

In addition, both men see themselves as the little guy that must do battle with overbearing corporate interests out to squash their vision.  And both men ultimately prevail by sticking to their guns and coming out the other end with an inspiring product to show for their efforts.  Coppola must have felt a great sense of relief when the film was well-received by critics—in a strange way, the warm reception validated his entire life story.

As a particularly brutal decade for Coppola’s reputation came to a close, the director was approaching middle age, and was beginning to think about his legacy.  To date, the majority of his studio filmmaking experiences had been difficult, if not absolutely dismal.

Coppola finished TUCKER: THE MAN & HIS DREAM thinking it was going to be his last Hollywood film.  He had diversified, branching out of film by launching his own lifestyle brand that included wine amidst other things.  He imagined himself continuing to make movies, but of the experimental independent kind.

Ironically, his studio days were far from over.  In the 1970’s, he was considered untouchable, but how would time judge him now, in light of the string of misfires that generated a massive debt that he had still yet to pay off entirely?   All of these concerns coalesced to form a desire to do something Coppola thought he’d never seriously do: tackle a third GODFATHER film.


NEW YORK STORIES SEGMENT: “LIFE WITHOUT ZOE” (1989)

Director Francis Ford Coppola closed out a particularly brutal decade for his career on a down note, unfortunately.   Having firmly established himself as one of the leading filmmakers in his generation (dubbed the Film Brats due to their being the first wave to come up through the institution of film school), Coppola collaborated with two of his biggest compatriots—Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen—on an anthology filmed named NEW YORK STORIES.

Each director crafted a forty-minute film that expresses their love for the city that never sleeps, but Coppola’s entry– LIFE WITHOUT ZOE– was the least-liked of the bunch.  Granted, it’s easy to be the lesser filmmaker when one is up against the likes of Scorsese and Allen, but LIFE WITHOUT ZOE can’t help but feel phoned in at best, and simply awful at worst.

In what could easily be a story devised by Wes Anderson, LIFE WITHOUT ZOE concerns a precocious young socialite named Zoe (Heather McComb) who lives in a hotel with her mother in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  She’s got the intellect and wit of a woman twice her age, and commands the unwavering loyalty of her Chanel-clad minions at school.

When a new boy joins their class—an exotic young prince from an oil-rich Middle Eastern nation—the girls get involved with his familial affairs and regard him as a major curiosity.  Meanwhile, Zoe attempts to reconcile her estranged father– a world-famous flutist (Giancarlo Giannini)– and her weary mother (Coppola’s sister Talia Shire).

If that plot sounds a little vague, that’s because the story itself isn’t particularly well-developed.  Coppola shoots from a script he co-wrote with his daughter Sofia (the traits that would later mark her own directorial debut are very noticeable even at an early age here), but the result is indulgent and out of touch.

  I’ve previously written about how I admired the fact that Coppola incorporated his family so much into his art, but LIFE WITHOUT ZOE and its successor, 1990’s THE GODFATHER PART III, stand as an example of when the practice crossed the line into nepotism and unnecessary indulgence.

The cast is comprised mostly of unknown child actors, but there a few recognizable faces.  The excellent European character actor Giancarlo Giannini (most would recognize him as Mathis in Martin Campbell’s CASINO ROYALE (2006)) is easily the best part of the film.

Shire, who has appeared in all three GODFATHER films, also turns in a great performance as Charlotte, Zoe’s beleaguered mother.  Comedic character actor Chris Elliott makes a small appearance as a robber, and apparently Adrien Brody is in there somewhere, but I never saw him.

Produced by Coppola’s regular partners Fred Roos and Fred Fuchs, LIFE WITHOUT ZOE also retains the services of Director of Photography Vittorio Storaro and production designer Dean Tavoularis.  Storaro shoots the 35mm film with an eye for bold colors, striking contrast, and canted camera angles.

Tavoularis’ production design is as reliable as always, but the influence  (some might call it meddling) of Sofia is easily seen via the film’s costumes, which typically are obscenely rich haute couture staples like Chanel and Louis Vuitton awkwardly worn by rich little brats stinking of stale Old Money.

Carmine Coppola scores the film, crafting a very 1990’s-style pop character that evokes Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound”, while also using the flute for whimsical renditions of famous childhood lullabies.  It’s weird, but it fits.

If it weren’t for a few instances of double exposures and crossfade cuts, the film wouldn’t necessarily stand out as a Coppola film.  This is the kind of Coppola that is capable of making JACK (1996), not the Coppola who floored us with THE GODFATHER (1972).

It might very well be the worst thing he’s made yet, but it’s not without its redeeming moments.  The family element of the film is poignant and powerful, especially in the relationship between Zoe and her father.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the fundamental disconnect lies.  For me, it’s the completely alienating tone and setting.  I realize that the upper crust of the Upper East Side is an exclusive world of decadence all its own within a city full of different, contained lifestyles, but I can’t help but only see repulsive, spoiled brats—and not quirky, precocious trendsetters as their makers intended them to be.

There also isn’t a great deal of inspiration driving Coppola here, and it’s always disappointing to see a great filmmaker not giving his best.  Fortunately, his next feature—a return to the venerable GODFATHER franchise—would see Coppola striving to work at top form once again.


THE GODFATHER: PART III (1990)

Facing a seemingly-insurmountable mountain of debt stemming from the box office failure of 1982’s ONE FROM THE HEART, director Francis Ford Coppola struggled throughout the 1980’s to make films that would dig him out, only to see them fail and Debt Mountain rise even higher.

By 1990, Coppola had to do something drastic, something he thought he’d never do—he had to make a third GODFATHER film.  Paramount had always extended a long-standing offer to him to make another sequel, but when he finally took them up on it, they kicked him while he was down.  They gave him only a million dollars to write, produce, direct, and edit the film, as well as a measly deadline of six weeks in which to write the script.

With the deck stacked against him, Coppola summoned everything he had to make a film that would stand up to the saga’s two cinema-defining predecessors.  In the end, the long-awaited final product—THE GODFATHER PART III—did modestly well at the box office, but disappointed its audience and has since become known as an “awful film”, the black sheep of a sterling silver lineage.

What most people forget, however, is that the film was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and despite a few fatal flaws, THE GODFATHER PART III holds up surprisingly well as an inspired, yet unexpected conclusion to an epic saga.

The story picks up in New York City, circa 1979.  The Corleone family consiegliere, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) is dead, and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is an old man intent on salvaging his legacy and bringing legitimacy to the Corleone name.

He taps his considerable wealth to buy a controlling share in Immobiliare, an ancient Italian real estate conglomerate with ties to the Vatican.  In doing so, he has to contend with the cardinals of the Catholic Church, who are well aware of his sins and fight to prevent his takeover.

At the same time, the bastard son of Sonny Corleone, Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia) is rising fast in the mafia ranks, making known his intention to succeed Michael as Don of the Corleone family.  He begins an affair with his cousin (and Michael’s daughter) Mary (Sofia Coppola), while also battling with the Corleone’s family rival, Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna).

As these two story threads converge, Michael realizes that he can never be saved from his sins, but he can do everything in his power to save his family.  THE GODFATHER SAGA is known for its iconic performances, and while PART III more or less holds up to that standard, it falters along the way.

Pacino is as great as ever, imbuing his older version of Michael Corleone with the hunched back that comes with heavy burdens and aging complications.  We last saw him as a distinguished, suave young man, but PART III finds Michael as a soft-spoken diabetic, ashamed of his past and wracked by guilt.

It’s a haunting performance, especially in the film’s final moments.  Oddly enough, it was the only one of Pacino’s three performances as Michael not to receive an Oscar nomination, but it’s just as worthy.

Diane Keaton returns as Michael’s estranged wife Kay, who is also been made weary by time, but finds herself softening to Michael in her advanced years.  She no longer sees a murdering monster, but a good man who lost his soul doing what he thought was the right thing for his family.

Kay has always been the audience’s point of sympathetic access to this world, and her arc is necessary to hammer home the key theme of forgiveness and redemption.  As Corleone family upstart Vincent Mancini, Andy Garcia is the highlight of the film, channeling his late father’s hotheadedness and charisma to secure his place at Michael’s table, only to learn he was born a few years too late and organized crime isn’t really the Corleone’s thing anymore.

Garcia is sly and charming, a natural successor to Corleone’s criminal empire—he would have made a perfect Michael Corleone himself if THE GODFATHER (1972) had been made twenty years later.  The supporting cast is filled with actors of the highest caliber.

Talia Shire returns as Connie Corleone, fully in command of her status as the matriarch.  Her years in service to Michael have made her a calculating woman, not unlike a Lady Macbeth.  Whereas in PART II she railed against Michael’s tyranny, in PART III she is a full partner and Michael’s closest confidante.

An elderly Eli Wallach plays Don Altobello, a good-natured old man who becomes an unexpected nemesis to the Corleones in the wake of Zasa’s rivalry.  As Joey Zasa, Joe Mantegna steals his scenes with a smug, vainglourious attitude and a slippery, treacherous demeanor.

Zasa is the closest the film gets to a traditional GODFATHER antagonist, and Mantegna has never been better than he is here.  John Savage, who had once appeared in a film that took enormous inspiration from THE GODFATHER (Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER (1978), comes off believably as Tom Hagen’s son Andrew, a friendly priest on assignment to the Corleone’s native Sicily.

He doesn’t get a lot to do, but fans of the actor will find his inclusion memorable nonetheless.  And then there’s the elephant in the room.  I’m talking about Sofia Coppola, handpicked by her father to sub in for Winona Ryder after she dropped out of the key role of Michael’s daughter Mary.

Now, I respect the hell out of Sofia and truly love her directorial work, but it’s no secret that her acting is outright atrocious.  It might have even been the decisive factor which kept the film from attaining the same kind of Oscar glory that its counterparts enjoyed.

Her flat delivery and blank stare is devoid of life and robs the film’s resolution of substantial dramatic impact.  Coppola is to be admired in how he collaborates with his family to create great art, but charges of nepotism are certainly justified in this case.  Simply put, his judgment was clouded, and his impaired foresight almost sank the entire ship.

For a sequel made sixteen years after its last entry, the look of THE GODFATHER PART III is remarkably consistent with its predecessors, due entirely to returning cinematographer Gordon Willis.  The 1.85:1 35mm frame boasts deep shadows and keeps the same color-faded sepia tone that evokes old family photographs that so distinguished the previous two films.

However, I also noticed that the image is considerably pink-er than the others, as if shot through rose-colored glasses.  Willis and Coppola capture the various New York and Sicilian locales with the same reserved camerawork that was employed by its predecessors, and returning Production Designer Dean Tavoularis authentically recreates a subtle period aesthetic circa 1979.

We see a much more decrepit NYC this time around, consistent with the griminess of the city at the time, but it also suggests the growing inner decay of the film’s morally bankrupt characters.  This is most apparent in scenes with Vincent Mancini, who operates underground in a time where gangsters aren’t afforded the same type of respectable, dignified public image they once were.

Instead of Nino Rota, Coppola’s father Carmine comes on board to score the film, adapting much of Rota’s iconic themes into new arrangements that give the music a somber, distant and forlorn patina to reflect Michael’s regret.

The unmistakable waltz theme fires up right at the beginning of the film, reassuring as we slip right back into the mafia’s world as if no time had passed at all.  The trademark inclusion of opera music and church hymnals are also retained, while a few dashes of rock music are scattered throughout to reflect how times have changed for our favorite crime family.

Musically, Carmine’s work is probably the weakest of the three scores, but it still packs an emotional punch—especially through his arrangement of “Cavelleria Rusticana” in the film’s denouement.  THE GODFATHER SAGA is well-known for several sequences that are reference-grade work on great direction.

Scenes like the Baptism Murder sequence in PART I, and a young Vito stalking his prey along the rooftops of New York’s Little Italy in PART II are some of the best individual sequences in cinema.  PART III, unfortunately, has only a handful of similar sequences—none of them packing the same kind of emotional punch as the aforementioned scenes.

The only one that comes close is the ending, in which Coppola depicts Michael’s agony over (spoilers) the death of his daughter Mary by shooting.  While the scene is shot fairly conventionally in terms of coverage, legendary editor Walter Murch made a daring, inspired choice to cut out the sound of Michael’s anguished scream so that his face becomes a silent contortion of grief.

Michael’s heart problems are alluded to throughout the film, so for a moment it seems like he could be suffering a major cardiac arrest until he finally finds his wind and lets out a neutered whimper.  It’s heartbreaking to watch, and what was initially a happy accident becomes the film’s most memorable moment.

Like the previous two films, I had seen THE GODFATHER PART III several times before watching it for the purposes of The Directors Series.  I had always thought it to be an excellent film, despite its poor reputation.  Watching it in the context of Coppola’s career development, I was able to read into the film deeper than ever before.

While the key themes of the series—religious ceremony/ritual, family, and a cross-cutting, murderous climax—are all present and accounted for, I saw a very autobiographical aspect to Michael Corleone’s storyline this time around.  Coppola’s previous feature, TUCKER: THE MAN & HIS DREAM (1988) had previously explored this territory in much more overt fashion, but THE GODFATHER PART III comes at it from a more compelling angle.

I’ve written before about how by this point in his career, Coppola was firmly into middle-age, and his best work was most likely behind him.  Faced with a sharp downturn in the quality of his product, Coppola no doubt must have felt the desire to salvage his cinematic legacy from ruin—much like how Corleone was compelled to clean the dirt from his family name as he became an old man.

Both men’s efforts are constantly foiled by the products of their own sins and indulgences: Corleone’s demons are the ones he has birthed himself from the wreckage of his tyrannical crime empire, and Coppola’s is the inability to distinguish himself in new ways in the eyes of an audience who has judged him to only be capable of one way.

Both men ultimately save their souls by selling them—Corleone reluctantly embraces his old criminal methods and Coppola has to make the one kind of film his audience wants him to make.  It’s a well-known fact that Coppola, having envisioned it as simply an epilogue to the first two films and not a true PART III, wanted to name the film “The Death of Michael Corleone”.

It could be argued that an equally appropriate title would be “The Death of Francis Ford Coppola”, with Michael standing in for Coppola as a man struggling to stay afloat in the wake of a child’s death, a stalled career, and a public perception at odds with the legacy he wishes to leave.  THE GODFATHER PART III is an expression of remorse and hope for a fallen soul.  It is a confession, both Corleone’s and Coppola’s alike.

This impassioned approach undoubtedly shows in the finished product, resulting in one of the finest films Coppola has ever made.  THE GODFATHER PART III is quite literally Coppola filming for his life, as an act of cinematic survival.

It’s not a perfect film, still prone to nepotistic indulgences and stubborn auteurism, but it’s a worthy conclusion to one of the greatest American film series of all time, and a valiant effort to recapture that ineffable talent that never quite found its way out of the jungles of APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).


BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992)

Despite its disappointing critical reception, director Francis Ford Coppola’s decision to make THE GODFATHER PART III proved to be a fruitful one.  His company, American Zoetrope, earned a stay of execution by the forces of bankruptcy, but it wasn’t in the clear yet.

Coppola’s next project came from an unexpected source: Winona Ryder, who had previously dropped out of playing the role of Mary Corleone for Coppola without explanation, came to him with the idea of a new take on Bram Stoker’s iconic literary creation, Count Dracula.

Sensing an opportunity to explore the unworldly and deeply erotic undertones of Stoker’s vampire story, Coppola channeled his inspiration into one of the most original visions in cinematic history—boldly forward thinking but achievable using cinema’s most primitive effect techniques—and saved American Zoetrope from obliteration in the process.

The result, 1992’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, distinguishes itself by loyally adhering itself to the source novel, while presenting a lavishly surreal vision of gothic horror.   You know the story, but not like this:

It is the year 1897.  The Victorian period is on its way out in Europe, and a fascinating new invention named cinema—that is, moving pictures—has captured the imagination of the public.  A young, English real estate broker named Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) travels to distant Transylvania to negotiate a contract for a piece of prime London property with its buyer, the reclusive and supremely mysterious Count Dracula (Gary Oldman).

Seemingly held against his will, Harker languishes in Dracula’s ancient desolate castle while Dracula spirits away to London in search of the blood of virile young women.  He sets his sights on Harker’s young fiancé (Ryder), but soon finds himself falling in love with the girl, who may be a reincarnation of his own lost love from centuries ago.

When Dracula’s vampiric nature is deduced, a scholar of the occult named Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) is called in to help Harker destroy Dracula before he turns Mina into his own bride of blood.  To think of Dracula is to imagine ancient, cobwebbed castles, cheesy flying bats, and sinister shadows.

But most of all, we think of the unmistakable visage of Bela Lugosi, who literally defined the role in the original Universal monster movie DRACULA (1931).  His depiction of the infamous Count has towered over every other incarnation for just over sixty years, so what would Coppola need to be do differently to reinvent a character who had already been so firmly established in our collective subconscious?

What Coppola has chosen to do here is something of a triumph, quite honestly.  From day one, his interpretation of Stoker’s novel was meant to be strikingly original.  His initial intent was to reduce the sets to artful configurations of shadows and light akin to the German expressionism found in such early silent films as THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920), while pouring the art budget into elaborately designed costumes.

When his financiers balked at this idea, Coppola agreed to make a more conventional looking film, but the heavily-stylized design conceits would remain.  The result is nothing short of a complete visual tour de force, the likes of which may never be seen again on a scale like this.

Coppola’s cast, an eclectic mix of acting powerhouses and young, attractive stars, breathes life into the director’s grand, baroque design.  Gary Oldman is perfectly cast as the infamous Count, completely shredding any lingering impressions of Bela Lugosi while still paying a tremendous deal of respect to Lugosi’s interpretation.

An apt comparison would be the Heather Ledger’s take on The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008), against Jack Nicholson’s depiction in Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989).  Oldman assumes many guises—each one of them horrifying, oftentimes acting under pounds of prosthetic makeup.

It’s a radical reinvention of the character, and apparently much closer to Stoker’s original vision for the character than the form the Count has taken in pop culture.  Winona Ryder plays Mina Harker, a mischievous young socialite who finds herself caught up in Dracula’s gaze, and unable to resist his advances.

Ryder gives all of herself to the role, no doubt making up for lost opportunity when she bowed out of THE GODFATHER PART III.  Anthony Hopkins turns in a predictably powerhouse performance as Van Helsing, giving the iconic character an Old World flair and a somewhat-scruffy, wild-eyed demeanor.

Whereas in the classic Universal version of DRACULA, Van Helsing was portrayed as a dignified, elderly intellectual, Coppola’s take on the story finds the character considerably sexed up, prone to fallibility and temptation. Hopkins is one of the finest actors of his generation, and BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA is yet another showcase of his superlative talent.

The inverse can be said for poor Keanu Reeves, who I don’t find to be a particularly terrible actor in general, but rather one with an extremely narrow range.  In a performance that evokes the fiasco that was Sofia Coppola in THE GODFATHER PART III, Reeves’ utter inability to convince as a wealthy English aristocrat drags Coppola’s entire vision down.

He tries so hard to speak his lines in a Victorian English accent, that he completely forgets to emote, resulting in one of the most wooden performances I’ve ever seen.  His casting reads as a cynical move on Coppola’s part, who has publicly stated that he needed “hot young actors” to lure in the youth audience.

As to why he didn’t pick from the sizable pool of attractive young stars that could actually pull this role off, I’ll never know.  Cary Elwes and Tom Waits are the performances of note that round out the supporting cast.  Elwes plays Lord Holmwood, a dandy-ish aristocrat who is drawn into Dracula’s insidious activity when his new wife is infected with vampirism.

Waits, a regular performer for Coppola in the 80’s, plays Renfield, the infamous character who is driven mad by his encounter with Dracula and eats rats for sustenance.  Waits’ take on Renfield channels something of a steampunk aesthetic, and the musician’s insane, disheveled mannerisms are the most exaggerated displays of Acting (with a capital A) that I’ve ever seen from the man.

Every penny of the film’s budget is thrown right up on the screen in dripping color.  For the cinematography, Coppola enlists the help of a new collaborator, Michael Ballhaus, who captures the director’s sinister, baroque vision with feverish aplomb.

The 35mm film gauge is typical of a modern Hollywood film, but Coppola and Ballhaus channel the spirit of cinema’s magician roots to convey a look that’s firmly entrenched in techniques of the past yet altogether entirely new.

Drawing quite liberally from the aesthetics of German Expressionism and Japanese shadow puppet theatre, the film affects a preternaturally creepy persona via perspective tricks, stylized theatrical lighting, billowing cloth, and subtly unnatural visual cues.

Understandably, the color red is the dominant color in Coppola’s palette, but even more interestingly is his treatment of the green end of the spectrum—particularly in the appearance of foliage and other plant life.

Most visibly evident in springtime garden sequences featuring Mina Harker, Ballhaus and Coppola have dramatically desaturated the green from the surrounding trees and hedges, thereby draining the film of life itself.  In Coppola’s vision, the rules of nature and physics bend to the will of the undead, and the stench of rot is overbearing.

For a film set during the dawn of cinema, Coppola’s chiaroscuro appropriately and heavily borrows from the aesthetics of silent film, most notably from F.W. Murnau’s NOSFERATU (1922).  The production design, by first-time Coppola collaborator Thomas E. Sanders is first-rate, but the lion’s share of acclaim really goes to costume designer Eiko Ishioka, who won the Oscar for her Japanese kabuki theatre-influenced costumes.

By far, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA is Coppola’s most elaborately stylized film to date, and its loving references to cinema’s beginnings blend sublimely with the rest of the mise-en-scene.

In a move indicative of his love for collaborating with direct family, Coppola famously fired his visual effects team when they were unable to give him what he wanted, and replaced them with his young son, Roman.  Some might say this stinks of nepotism, a further indulgence of the kind that stained THE GODFATHER PART III; however, Roman’s youth and relative inexperience proved to be serendipitous and liberating.

Literally every single effect was achieved in-camera via forced perspective, painstaking multiple exposures, miniatures and other tricks of the trade.  As a result, this film—like its undead antihero—will never age, forever existing in the realm of pure cinematic magic and unblemished by outdated computer renderings.

The amount of creativity on display is simply astounding, and it is a standard that visual effects artists should hold themselves too more often.  The score is supplied by a new collaborator for Coppola, one Wojciech Kilar.  His gothic, mysterious cues recall the ominous bombast of the classic Universal monster films while adding an unworldly soprano voice that hints at Dracula’s deeply-buried humanity.

Coppola’s decidedly romantic vision is complemented by Kilar’s lush palette, as well as by an orchestra of frenzied voices, wails, and screams that somehow defy the chaos to harmonize into a feverish sound design.

After returning to his stylistic roots with THE GODFATHER PART III, Coppola forges entirely new ground in an attempt to bring class and elegance back to gothic horror.  Ever the innovator, Coppola’s use of ancient filmmaking techniques was unprecedented in this day and age, and it also became the first major film to utilize a nonlinear editing system in its construction (as the digital era had yet to descend on the industry, traditional flatbed editing was still in widespread use at the time of the film’s release).

But most of all, Coppola’s risky vision paid off at the box office and finally saved his long-beleaguered American Zoetrope from financial ruin.  In the years since its release, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA has been gently forgotten, dwarfed by more mainstream vampire fare like INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994), or a certain popular book series adaption that I refuse to name, but those who take the time to reacquaint themselves with Coppola’s vision will find a timeless masterwork by one of cinema’s most brilliant minds.  Just don’t get too hung up on Keanu.

BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Sony Pictures (although it’s a little known fact that it was issued as a part of the Criterion Collection during the Laserdisc days).


JACK (1996)

I knew this moment was coming, and I was dreading it just as soon I decided to focus on the work of director Francis Ford Coppola.  How is that one man can be the author behind both one of the greatest films of all time, and yet also be responsible for one of the worst as well?  It quite literally defies the laws of physics.

The first time someone, anyone hears that Coppola directed JACK (1996), they stop in their tracks, struck dumb by shocked disbelief.  How could this… thing exist in the world and not have the universe collapse in on itself?

Hyperbolic rhetoric aside, JACK is a confounding entry in Coppola’s oeuvre.  We’ve seen Coppola capable of some head-scratchingly awful work before, but at least it was awful in the attempt of pushing boundaries, or challenging himself.  JACK, while infuriatingly poignant by the end, commits the worst sin in art:  indifference.

The film knows exactly what it is but doesn’t try to be anything more than that, its “drama” culled from cliché sentimentality and blatantly manipulative storytelling.  This was my second viewing of JACK, and I’ll admit that I couldn’t help shedding a tear as the film drew to a close, but I was angry with myself over doing so— that emotion wasn’t earned by good storytelling, it simply exploited the overt poignancy of the moment and cranked up the sad music and soft-focus cinematography to 11 in a rapacious attempt to force me into feeling something.

JACK, first and foremost, is a family film— which I guess is where its connection to the Coppola filmography begins and ends.  It tells the story of Jack Powell (Robin Williams), a sweet, energetic little ten-year old boy who, because of a severe aging defect, has the outward appearance of… well, Robin Williams.

The film deals with his decision to stop his secluded home schooling and enter into the dangerous world of public school alongside normal children.  He’s regarded as a freak at first, but his charm and innocence soon win over his classmates.  Ultimately, he conquers the emotional wreckage of his defect and manages to live a full, albeit very short life.

I’ll say this—the performances are as good as they can be.  I honestly don’t mind Robin Williams at all, and I love it when he subverts his image with darker roles, like in DEATH TO SMOOCHYINSOMNIA, and ONE HOUR PHOTO (all of which, fascinatingly, were released in 2002).

Williams’ hyperactive style of delivery is appropriate for the role of an overgrown ten year old boy, and it is chiefly Williams that makes the movie as (infuriatingly) touching as it is.  You may disagree with the quality of his performance, but you can’t deny that it was at least perfect casting.

Diane Lane, who worked with Coppola before on THE OUTSIDERS (1983) RUMBLE FISH (1984) and THE COTTON CLUB (1984), plays Jack’s caring mother Karen.  Lane has that whole “unconditional love of a mother” thing down pat, even when she looks like she could be her son’s younger sister.

Dedicated to making his short life the happiest it can be, she indulges in rowdy games with Jack, and convincingly appears anxious when the outside world begins to exert its will over her son.  Her performance is easily the best thing about this film, and its been a special experience to see her grow from innocent teenager, to confident sex kitten, to finally a courageous mother through the course of Coppola’s work.

Brian Kerwin plays Brian Powell, Jack’s dad, and does a fine job without particularly standing out.  Bill “Pudding Pops” Cosby is Lawrence Woodruff, Jack’s cool-as-a-cucumber private tutor and de facto best friend (at least at the beginning of the film).

Jennifer Lopez, who has had the terrible misfortune of being both in this film and GIGLI (2003), is sweet and effective in her role of Miss Marquez, Jack’s homeroom teacher and first crush.  And then there’s Fran Drescher, who plays a local mother named DD.

DD quickly gets the hots for Jack, ignorant of the fact that he’s mentally and emotionally ten years old, and unwittingly initiates him into the very adult world of sex.  Drescher in general irritates me, as a person—that grating smoker’s voice with that terrible Atlantic City accent, and that fucking laugh of hers.  I can hear it right now in my head, and it’s making me grind my molars together.

To lens this incredibly milquetoast-looking film, Coppola works for the first time with Director of Photography John Toll (who would go on to shoot Terrence Malick’s gorgeous THE THIN RED LINE two years later).  Shot on 35mm film in the standard Academy 1.89:1 aspect ratio, JACK is full of natural, bright primary colors that evoke a sunny, optimistic demeanor.

There’s no particular style to the film, and there’s absolutely no experimentation—everything is presented exactly as straightforward as it can be.  This makes for a very visually dull film, but it’s appropriate for the subject matter.  Coppola’s frequent Production Designer, Dean Tavoularis, returns to craft a childlike, nostalgic aesthetic.

The film’s Bay Area setting helps towards this end immensely by providing plentiful clean, golden sunlight to shower upon Coppola’s subjects.  Michael Kamen is on scoring duty in his first collaboration with Coppola.

In what is probably the most conventional element in a heavily conventional film, Kamen’s score has that typical “kid’s movie” orchestral sound—a sound that I’ve personally dubbed “shenanigans!”.  You’ll know it when you hear it.  Bryan Adams shows up as well, lending an overly earnest theme song to the film that I guess fits with the tone, if indeed there is a tone at work here.

JACK was released to abysmal reviews and poor box office receipts, and Coppola’s career hasn’t really been able to recover from it.  I know I’ve spent the better part of 2 pages shitting all over the film, so I’ll try to think of the positives, in the spirit of Jack Powell’s boundless optimism.

The look of the film is appealing in a charming, inoffensive way.  The performances are surprisingly effective, tapping into the burdens of adult life that they feel they must protect Jack from.  There isn’t an ounce of cynicism to be had on Coppola’s part.

And he also reigns in his at-times overbearing desire to fly in the face of convention to deliver a sweet, simple story about a misunderstood little boy who’s not big enough for his britches.  JACK is generic and bland, yes, but is the world any worse off because it exists?

Are we just being reactionary when we say that JACK is the worst film ever made?  Maybe.  Probably.  I agree that Coppola defied our expectations of him by choosing to tackle this film, but hasn’t he been defying our expectations his entire career?

He’s proven himself as a competent (if not formidable) filmmaker in just about every genre except science fiction, so why is a family film any different?  By rejecting this film, we judge Coppola for failing to live up to our assumptions of his character, but we’re also not allowing him to be who he really is.  Maybe that’s why we hate JACK so much: we’re completely missing the point.


THE RAINMAKER (1997)

The 1990’s saw director Francis Ford Coppola regain some of the clout he had squandered in the 80’s with high profile hits like THE GODFATHER PART III (1990) and BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992).  Fortunately, he was able to close out the decade (and the millennium) on a high note by adapting a popular John Grisham novel into an entertaining character drama.

Titled THE RAINMAKER (1997), Coppola’s last big studio film (so far) was greeted with a fair deal of praise and grossed just barely above its production budget.  It was a small victory for a man who was in dire need of them.

THE RAINMAKER stars Matt Damon as Rudy Baylor, an ambitious and eager law student who gets his first job working for an eccentric, flamboyant, and possibly corrupt lawyer named Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke).  When his employment doesn’t turn out as life-affirming as he expected, Baylor teams up with Stone’s pint-sized business partner Deck Shiffle (Danny DeVito) to form their own firm.

To drum up their client list, they set their sights on the case of a young man dying of bone marrow cancer who’s life would have been saved if his health insurance covered a certain operation.  Sensing a wrongful death suit, Baylor and Shiffle set about investigating the business practices of the boy’s insurance carrier, Great Benefit.

They unwittingly discover a vast conspiracy of denying claims to those in need purely for profit purposes, so the two enterprising lawmen launch a civil suit to expose this massive corporate malfeasance.  In the process, Baylor finds he can’t help breaking his number one rule: don’t get personally and emotionally involved with his clients.

Coppola has assembled a fine cast here, and everyone is convincing and effective in their roles.  Damon, looking slim and boyish in one of his earliest film performances, adopts a southern drawl to better communicate the film’s Memphis setting.  His Rudy Baylor is virtuous, whip-smart, and caring—everything you’d expect a protagonist to be.  It’s a strong performance by Damon, but not necessarily standout—despite starring in a Francis Ford Coppola film, he didn’t turn any heads until later that year in Gus Van Sant’s GOOD WILL HUNTING.

DeVito, as usual, steals the show as Baylor’s disheveled business partner, Deck Shiffle.  DeVito imbues the character with a sleazy, yet loveable charm.  The man, who isn’t exactly a lawyer himself since he failed the Bar six times, pursues potential new clients with reckless abandon—even while they’re recuperating in a hospital bed.

Normally, we’d view this behavior as despicable, but DeVito pulls it off with a degree of good-natured earnestness that gives him more of the aura of “loveable scamp” instead of “sleazy shark”.  Jon Voight plays Leo Drummond—a genial, well-heeled southern gentleman who represents his client Great Benefit, which makes him the de-facto antagonist.

Drummond is slippery, smooth, and razor-sharp.  He’s the kind of lawyer that knows every trick in the book and will turn the tables on you without you realizing until it’s too late.  It’s a strong, subdued performance from Voight, one that gives the film palpable tension without resorting to cliché “bad guy” archetypes.

And speaking of archetypes, there is a love interest in the film, played by Claire Danes (who was then experiencing a surge in fame after her performance as one half of the titular couple in Baz Luhrmann’s ROMEO + JULIET (1996)).  Her character, Kelly Riker, spends most of her screen time under heavy bandages as a victim of serial domestic abuse.

She’s young, pretty, and strong—especially when she has to defend her life against her abusive husband.  A bevy of familiar faces rounds out Coppola’s supporting cast, starting with Mickey Rourke as Baylor’s first boss, Bruiser.

Rourke imbues the role with a thuggish, flamboyant sensibility that telegraphs his corrupt nature like a street sign.  Regular Coppola performer Dean Stockwell returns as Judge Hale, a grumpy, sickly man who abruptly dies at the outset of Baylor’s suit against Great Benefit.

He is replaced by Danny Glover, who’s Judge Kipler character is a hardass, by-the-book kind of fellow.   Virgina Madsen appears as Jackie, one of Baylor’s key witnesses who could break the entire case open, but instead crumples into a sobbing pile under Voight’s expert counter-examinations.

And finally there’s Roy Scheider—of Coppola contemporary Steven Spielberg’s  JAWS (1975) fame—who has a small, yet key role as Wilford Keeley, the ultra-wealthy CEO of Great Benefit.  There’s a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo thrown around by all parties involved, and it’s a testament to their talent and Coppola’s direction that they all actually sound like they know what they’re talking about.

The look of THE RAINMAKER harkens back to the somber, reserved aesthetic Coppola popularized in THE GODFATHER TRILOGY.  Working again with JACK (1996) cinematographer John Toll, Coppola gives the 35mm film frame a subdued color palette, dealing mainly in earth tones, deep shadows, and an overall blue/green color cast.

The reserved camerawork favors wide compositions, enhanced by the use of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  Tone-wise, the film looks dead serious, but Coppola finds plenty of opportunity to inject natural, subtle comedy to help lighten the mood.

Music is provided by legendary composer Elmer Bernstein, who uses the film’s Memphis setting as inspiration for a blues-y, jazzy orchestral sound similar to David Shire’s work on THE CONVERSATION (1974).  As such, the score doesn’t carry the portentous weight that one might expect from a courtroom drama.

Instead, it bops along to the riffs of a church organ and other iconic Memphis sounds.  It’s an unexpected choice, but goes a long way towards establishing a unique, local flavor to the film and gives us a better view into the mindsets of its characters through their environment.

THE RAINMAKER doesn’t show a great deal of growth on Coppola’s part, but that’s to be expected for a middle-aged filmmaker with multiple masterpieces under his belt.  With this film, Coppola is treading well within his wheelhouse, but he’s not complacently resting on his laurels, either.

As his last big studio film so far, and his last film of the 20th century, Coppola has crafted a fine, respectable drama with a distinct character.  It may become increasingly forgotten as time goes by, but the work speaks for itself. It’ll hold up in the court of public opinion where so many of its bigger, mainstream contemporaries will fall flat.  In the long run, that’s the only verdict that matters.


YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH (2007)

After the release of 1997’s THE RAINMAKER, director Francis Ford Coppola’s next move was the most surprising of an already-unconventional career: he took a ten-year hiatus.  Like his counterpart Terrence Malick, Coppola all but disappeared from the film scene for a ridiculously extended period of time, and many assumed he was simply retired.

  It had been a brutal two decades for Coppola, who saw the infallible image given to him by his quartet of masterpieces in the 1970’s battered to near-death by a string of flops and audience-alienating indulgences in the 80’s and 90’s.  The man certainly deserved a break, but when he came back, he came back with his priorities realigned and his creativity refreshed.

I have written before about how Coppola used the considerable wealth he had garnered from his directorial triumphs to diversify into other endeavors, most notably his lifestyle brand, Francis Ford Coppola Presents.  During his decade-long sabbatical, the aging Coppola tended to his business endeavors– the most profitable of which was his winery.

Frustrated by the studio meddling that comes with studio financing, Coppola was probably unsure how to proceed forward with his bold, experimental style in an industry that had become too “safe” for radical artists like him.

Perhaps it was his intention all along, but the answer to his artistic woes were right under his nose– swishing around in his glass as the aroma of fermented grapes invaded his nostrils.   He could get around the tampering of clueless studio executives by robbing them of their leverage; that is to say, he could regain creative control by financing his films with the considerable profits from his wine business.

An unexpected result of this decision was a radical shift of direction in Coppola’s career.  Coppola was taking a firm step away from the studio method of filmmaking that he had practically re-energized single-handedly with THE GODFATHER (1972), and was striking out on his own as a maverick filmmaker, answerable to no one.

Budgets would be a mere fraction of what he was used to, but this also meant he was much lighter on his feet and possessed more leverage to assert total creative control.  By unavailing himself from the tools of complacency brought about by bountiful resources, Coppola was able to approach filmmaking with the energy and experimentalism of a hungry film student.

Coppola’s first project under this new philosophy, 2007’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH, marked his return to cinema after ten years in the woods.  An adaption of the novel by Romanian author Mircea Eliade, the nonlinear, surreal nature of the story provided plenty of room for experimentation.

The film concerns an old man living in pre-WW2 Romania named Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) who is suddenly zapped by a bolt of lightning in the town square.  Instead of being fried to death, Dominic finds himself alive and well, much to his doctors’ bewilderment.

Astonishingly, he appears nearly thirty years younger when the bandages come off, blessed with the virility and energy that comes with youth.  Given a second lease on life, he toils through the middle decades of the twentieth century, trying to answer the mystery of his condition.

 He soon comes into contact with a beautiful woman named Veronica (Alexandra Lara), who he takes as a research subject and lover when she is similarly transformed by a freak occurrence of nature.  Instead of aging, she becomes possessed by primitive forces during her sleep, each night babbling in a different language that reaches back further and further into mankind’s past and the origins of speech.

However, his extended presence has negative consequences for her—namely, she ages exponentially while Dominic remains the same age.  Dominic finds himself torn between letting her suffer further for the potential discovery of our linguistic origins, or sacrifice love and happiness so that she may be young and healthy.

It’s all very heady stuff, and the cast demonstrates a firm grasp on the intricate subject matter.  Tim Roth gives one of his best performances as Dominic, both as a reflective, somber elderly man under pounds of prosthetic makeup, and as the sprightly, intellectual younger version of the character.

The time rift experienced by Dominic also fractures his identity, manifested in a malevolent double that appears only in mirrors but has an agenda all its own.  Roth effortlessly transitions between both sides of his identity, making for an engrossing and disturbing performance.

Interestingly, Roth is the only recognizable actor in Coppola’s cast.  The lovely Alexandra Lara holds her own against veteran Hollywood talent as Roth’s lover, Veronica.  Her descent in the dark interior jungle of man’s origins is frightening and captivating, and she naturally spouts off dozens of primitive languages without stumbling once.  It is a truly impressive performance.

While the remainder of the cast does a fine job, the most noteworthy supporting performance belongs to a cameo—Matt Damon, in his second Coppola appearance following his starring turn in THE RAINMAKER. Damon appears only in one scene (he seems to do this a lot for respected directors like Gus Vant Sant or Steven Soderbergh), but his shady American intelligence agent does a great job of illuminating the broader context of the times, and the secrecy-shrouded backroom dealings of The Cold War.

YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is notable in Coppola’s filmography for being his first feature shot on the high definition digital format, instead of the traditional celluloid film.  Digital filmmaking was still in its nascent stages in 2007, but Coppola saw its potential for creating striking-looking cinema on a smaller budget.

His work with a new format is reflected in his hiring of a new cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare Jr., who shot the film using Sony’s F950 camera (which no doubt had been recommended to Coppola by his colleague George Lucas after using it on 2005’s STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH).

The HD image is striking, creating one of the best-looking early examples of the format’s capabilities.  Using the traditional anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio as a canvas, Coppola and Malaimare make a seamless transition into the digital realm with a handsome, filmic image.

The cinematography evokes a cross between Coppola’s aesthetic for THE GODFATHER and BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992)— that is, dark shadows and an earth-toned, amber wash is interspersed with bright colors and expressionistic compositions.

Camerawork is mostly of the reserved, traditional variety—except when the camera itself is turned on its side or upended entirely.  High-key, expressionistic lighting reflects Coppola’s baroque, dreamlike tone, while also becoming a subtle visual signifier when the whimsical morphs into the nightmarish.

All in all, YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is a stunning looking film that shows off the lush beauty that a then-fledgling format was capable of.  The film’s music is provided by Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov, who gives the musical palette an Old World, romantic flavor.

Golijov is not specifically a film composer by trade, but his relative inexperience makes for a fresh, dynamic sound.  The film’s overarching theme of time is reflected through the use of arrhythmic percussion and chimes similar to the grinding of intricate machinery.

Golijov strikes a good balance between traditional, romantic orchestration and ambient, enigmatic tones that propel the film’s sense of mystery and wonder.  Also reflecting the midcentury European setting is the inclusion of a handful of popular songs from the era (think Edith Piaf, even though I don’t believe any of her songs specifically make an appearance).

While a number of Coppola’s key creative personnel are new (Malaimare Jr and Production Designer Calin Papura), YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH benefits from the participation of veteran colleagues like longtime producer Fred Roos, editor Walter Murch, and son Roman on second unit directing duties.

And for the first time in a long while, this actually feels like a Coppola film—his signature crossfades, double exposures, and other layering techniques create a rich tapestry that eschews the harsh lines of the traditional editing language.

Indeed, language itself is one of YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH’s most prominent themes, so it only stands to reason that Coppola would use the story as a springboard for the further exploration of unconventional storytelling techniques that have distinguished his career.

YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH channels a charming Euro Art Deco aesthetic, right down to the opening titles that resemble those old, colorful olive oil posters you see in  Italian restaurants.  For a film that’s so distinctly unfamiliar in its telling, an Old World mise-en-scene is a comforting inclusion that also gives the film a great deal of class.

However, it was not enough to win over a wide audience upon release.  It failed to make back its meager production budget, and critics experienced mixed reactions running the gamut between lavish praise and hateful scorn.

I had seen the film once before sometime after graduating college, and I wasn’t exactly taken with it.  Ironically, it took a second viewing years later for me to realize how subconsciously profound an influence it was on me in determining the aesthetic of my own 2009 feature,

SO LONG, LONESOME.  The nonlinear presentation of chronology, the juxtaposition of bright and saturated colors with drab, toned-down images, and unconventional framing techniques all rubbed off on me as ways to convey a heightened reality in tune with the metaphysical.  The film’s enchanted, lived-in aesthetic also could have feasibly served as a reference for a thematically similar work, David Fincher’s THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008).

YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is a challenging film, no doubt.  It requires your undivided attention and multiple viewings in order to truly appreciate its mysteries.  While watching the film for the purposes of The Directors Series, I realized that I had not given the film enough of my attention the first time around, hence my original lukewarm reception to it.

This time, I found myself more engrossed by the intricate storyline, and connected more with its potent musings on age and the ravages of time.  I certainly wouldn’t recommend this film to just anyone, but those with the necessary patience will find YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH a richly rewarding experience.

For his grand return to filmmaking after a prolonged absence, Coppola’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH marks the beginning of a bold, experimental phase for the seasoned director.  His productivity will no doubt decline, whether it’s due to a leisurely development schedule or his own advancing age, but I find it heartening to see a director of Coppola’s stature getting back in touch with his roots as an indie maverick.

His best years might surely be behind him, and his new work may turn off a great deal of his fans, but Coppola has consistently and unabashedly followed his heart where his art is concerned and the results are never boring.  YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is not unlike renewing one’s marriage vows, in that Coppola is dedicating himself anew to his life’s passion with vigor.

In doing so, Coppola has rediscovered his own youth, and has successfully channeled it into an ambitious, challenging film unlike anything he’s done before.  He may have been away for a while, but don’t count him out yet.


TETRO (2009)

The release of 2007’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH, while middling in its critical reception, proved to be a reinvigorating event for director Francis Ford Coppola.  After a decade-long absence from the screen, the middle-aged filmmaker had found an energy and inspiration matching that of an ambitious and inquisitive film student forty years his junior.

  After a long run of compromise and disappointment in the studio system, he had finally found a method that worked for him.  By financing his own films entirely from his winery profits, he could assume total creative control and succeed or fail on his own terms.

Not long after YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH wrapped production, Coppola began working on his follow-up:  a darkly romantic tale of familial discord between two estranged brothers in Buenos Aires.  Titled TETRO (2007), the film would harken back to his earliest work by focusing on subtle relationship dynamics and gorgeous, unadorned cinematography.

Like its cinematic predecessor, TETRO was similarly received with mixed reactions and lackluster box office returns, but Coppola’s daring vision makes for his strongest and most-respected film in years.  A teenaged boy, Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), arrives in Buenos Aires after the cruise line he works as a waiter for suddenly experiences an engine room fire and has to dock for a few days.

He takes advantage of the scenario by calling upon his older brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo), who took off on a mysterious writing “sabbatical” when Bennie was only a child and hasn’t been seen since.  When Bennie reunites with Tetro, he finds a deeply-cynical and mean-spirited man who wants nothing to do with his family, and his past.

  The only way of understanding Tetro’s current state of disdain, as well as Bennie’s own heritage, is to examine his scribbled writings, which Bennie procures through the deception of Tetro’s well-intentioned girlfriend Miranda (Mariba Verdu).  In doing so, Bennie uncovers a complicated family history and a shocking secret about his true lineage.

Part of Coppola’s new filmmaking method seems to be anchoring a cast of talented international unknowns around a singular star name.  YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH had Tim Roth, TETRO has film renegade and provocateur, Vincent Gallo.  Gallo, who swears by the benefits of improvisation during the production process on his own directorial work, had to realign himself with Coppola’s own meticulously-rehearsed philosophy.

  The result is a strong performance by Gallo, who uses his trademark eccentricity to striking effect as a reclusive, disgruntled genius.  Gallo’s Tetro is volatile and prone to psychotic outbursts, but he also finds an inherent humanity that pays off in the film’s final moments.

Of the unknown cast, Ehrenreich and Verdu stand out the most.  Ehrenreich drew comparisons to a young Leonardo DiCaprio in his performance as an inquisitive young man with a well-travelled innocence.  Verdu projects a feminine warmth and grace as Miranda, Tetro’s demure girlfriend who gave up a promising career in medicine to attend to his off-kilter needs.

Together, both actors create a tangible foundation for Gallo to build off of, reigning in what could have been an indulgently bizarre performance and turning it into something insightful and touching.  Coppola re-enlists the services of cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr, who appears to be this career phase’s incarnation of Vittorio Storaro.

Seeing TETRO as a thematic companion piece to his 1984 film RUMBLE FISH, Coppola wanted to emulate the black and white cinematography of the latter, while also evoking the texture and compositional elegance of old photographs.

TETRO also marks Coppola’s second time using the high definition digital format as his acquisition medium, which makes for razor-sharp lines that heighten the noirish, black and white photography.  The camera never moves, utilizing carefully-composed 2.35:1 frames to tell Coppola’s story.

Ever the visual pioneer, Coppola uses another conceit to redefine our notions of the tried-and-true “flashback”.  Shot in a letterboxed 4:3 aspect ratio that evokes the boundaries of old 8mm film, Coppola shows us the twists and turns of Tetro’s complicated family history in striking color and handheld camerawork.

These don’t resemble home movies, however—the glossy sheen of the digital cinematography makes these sequences appear as if they were concurrent along the main story’s timeline.  The warm color tones that Coppola emphasizes during these sequences depict an objective truth that is obscured in the expressionistic, stark sequences set in the present day.

Also reprising his role in Coppola’s key creative team is Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov, who crafts a somber, jazzy score that calls to mind 1974’s THE CONVERSATION, albeit with an accordion-based, Latin influence.

Coppola also indulges his affectations for opera music throughout the film by incorporating an entire subplot around it.  This paints cosmopolitan Buenos Aires as a cultured city of good taste and history, making the juxtaposition of pop and rock cues all the more striking.

Coppola is well within his directorial wheelhouse here, combining several thematic conceits from films throughout his career.  The aforementioned RUMBLE FISH connection is the most obvious, but there are other hidden references, such as a visual callback to his 1963 debut, DEMENTIA 13.

The subtle relationship dynamics call to mind Coppola’s understate film, THE RAIN PEOPLE (1969), while the themes of family and success evoke THE GODFATHER TRILOGY.  By returning to his low-budget roots, Coppola proves to a powerful and fearless independent filmmaker.

The man’s career has always been predicated upon the theme of family, both as a dramatic focus as well as his collaborative tendencies (son Roman once again serves as the second unit director).  While Coppola’s Italian roots have been extensively explored throughout his life, TETRO finds Coppola grappling with his other, Argentinian bloodline.

The film allows him to draw a throughline between both cultures to find the similarities in their tastes in art and architecture, their lifestyles and social customs, and most of all, in their attitudes towards the family unit.  Coppola has publicly stated that TETRO is a very autobiographical film, albeit one that doesn’t contain a single true event.

The truth Coppola speaks of is in the emotions at play– an apt reference for art itself, where the only truth that matters is emotional truth.  As of this writing, Coppola has since directed another feature—2011’s TWIXT—which has yet to be released to a wide American audience.

As such, my analysis of Coppola’s career and filmography concludes (for now) with TETRO.  The man is a giant of international cinema, with an inarguably profound legacy.  Careers like his are some of the most rewarding for the purposes of The Directors Series, as they provide a decades-long examination, complete with highs and lows that welcome insightful analysis when freed of the context of the times they were released in.

My general takeaway on Coppola’s development is that he has always been an innovator, challenging his audience by redefining how films are constructed and presented.  One of his earliest influences was Sergei Eisenstein, the father of film editing technique and theory.

While they are commonplace to the point of invisibility today, Eisenstein’s innovations were radical and incredibly influential during the earliest days of cinema.  An entire visual language sprung up around cinematic storytelling, and Coppola spent the majority of his career building upon that language and challenging our relationship to it.

Coppola will always be remembered as one of the greatest directors of all time, mainly due to the uninterrupted run of absolute masterpieces he released during the 1970’s.  Each of those four films—THE GODFATHER (1972), THE CONVERSATION ,THE GODFATHER PART II (1974), and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)—is highly regarded not just in film circles but in the entirety of art.

Each of them have been deemed culturally significant and worthy of preservation by the National Film Registry.  They netted Coppola Academy Awards and Cannes Palme d’Ors.  He could have only made these four films and still be considered one of the greatest that ever lived.

Luckily, Coppola was not one to rest on his laurels, and always strove to push the boundaries of the art form, at great risk to his own legacy.  His failures may have tarnished his reputation as a filmmaker, where priority is placed on commercial success, but they have solidified his legacy as a true artist.

Coppola will always surprise us, because his work isn’t preoccupied with the popularity contest of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking.  He began as a maverick on the fringes, and that is where he will end it.  But until that day comes, keep those surprises coming.


TWIXT (2011)

By 2011, director Francis Ford Coppola was well into a new phase of his career, a phase that saw him financing his films independently with the profits from his lifestyle brand, Francis Ford Coppola Presents.  This approach resulted in the reinvigorating success of 2007’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH and 2009’s TETRO—so naturally, Coppola was keen to go a similar route for his next project, 2011’s TWIXT.

The idea for TWIXT came to Coppola in a dream, where he encountered the author Edgar Allan Poe in a gothic, wooded setting.  After working through his idea a little more, Coppola ended up with a story about a washed-up author of horror fiction who finds inspiration in a series of nightmares he has during a book tour stop in a mysteriously sleepy town.

But just as Coppola’s unabashed adherence to his vision cost him in the form of several failures throughout his career, so too does TWIXT—a pretty terrible film any way you slice it—become a large stumbling block to progress in Coppola’s delicately nascent indie phase.

The story of TWIXT begins when has-been horror writer Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer), described as a bargain basement Stephen King, stops in the sleepy town of Swann Valley during a humiliatingly ill-attended book tour of his latest work.  Standing watch over the town is a giant clock tower, each wall adorned by a giant clock.

Each of these clocks tells a different time, so no one quite knows exactly what time it is in this town.  Hall is approached by a grizzled Sherriff named LaGrange (Bruce Dern), who happens to be an aspiring writer himself.  He proposes a collaboration with Hall—a new book based on a story he’s concocted about a series of murders that occurred in the town.

Hall is intrigued by LaGrange’s concept, and spends his days trying to hammer out an outline while trying to convince his publisher to forward an advance to his nagging wife (played by Kilmer’s real-life ex-wife).  When night falls, however, Hall finds himself transported to a Gothic dreamscape, populated by ethereal children, a ghostly young girl named V (Elle Fanning), and his own literary idol, Edgar Allan Poe.

Through these nocturnal encounters, Hall uncovers the dark secrets of the town while stitching himself into the very fabric of its mysteries.  As the washed-up protagonist, Val Kilmer ably projects the aura of a has-been alcoholic with the requisite middle-aged bloat and a truly disgusting ponytail.

 TWIXT is the first time to my own eyes where Kilmer truly looks he’s aged tremendously, and to think he played Batman/Bruce Wayne in BATMAN FOREVER only eighteen years ago.  There has to be some sort of voodoo curse on him, because even working with a world-class director like Coppola can’t save the movie from going straight to video in America.

He gives a spirited performance, but he can’t transcend the messy mise-en-scene around him. As V, Elle Fanning spends the movie bathed in an ethereal glow and heavy makeup.  She’s initially presented as a sweet, ghostly young girl with a giant set of braces on her teeth, but her true nature as a vampire is revealed in a not-surprising twist.

Bruce Dern plays Sheriff LaGrange, a backwoods cop who brings a lot of comedic relief despite his serious intentions.  Rounding out the cast is Alden Ehrenreich, who previously starred in TETRO for Coppola.  In TWIXT he plays Flamingo, the goth/punk leader of the vampires who hang out “across the river”.

And finally, Tom Waits—a regular performer in Coppola’s canon—appears via a brief voiceover narration at the beginning.  However, his inclusion is a little odd considering his narration never occurs again for the remainder of the film.

Like Coppola’s previous two films, TWIXT is shot digitally by returning cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.  While their first two films together were gorgeous works of art that showed off the beauty that digital is capable of, TWIXT is unilaterally awful-looking.

There’s no excuse for how bad it looks; how can this be the same cinematographer who shot Paul Thomas Anderson’s gorgeous 2012 film THE MASTER?.  It’s overly crisp, overly lit, and completely fake-looking for the grand majority of its running time.

It’s as if the backgrounds were digitally inserted using entry-level compositing software—it’s THAT bad.  Counteracting with the bland static of the “reality” sequences is a stylized nightmare dreamscape.  These sequences were obviously shot during the day and color-timed after the fact, with Coppola adopting a silvery-cobalt monochromatic look punctuated by bright crimson and unnatural oranges.

The biggest strike against TWIXT’s visuals lies not in Coppola’s clearly imaginative inspiration, but in the execution— specifically, the visual effects.  Most of the effects are of such a shoddy bargain-basement quality that they look like they were ripped from a 90’s PC game.

It’s so bad that that it has to be intentional—there’s no comprehensible reason a world-class director like Coppola would let such shoddy work slide.  TETRO’S Osvaldo Golijov returns to score the film, this time collaborating with Dan Deacon to create a cheeky

gothic score.  It’s deliberately cheesy, like a low-budget schlock film you might find in VHS in the 1980’s.   I suspect that the score is the sole part of the film that’s accurately conveying Coppola’s intentions.  If his intention was to create high art out of low-brow direct-to-video horror trash, then he’s certainly pulled it off—and we’ve been reading the film totally wrong this entire time.

Coppola’s directorial style wasn’t built on aesthetic conceits like most of his contemporaries.  Rather, every choice he makes is informed by a constant goal: to find new cinematic vernaculars, new ways to express ideas on-screen.

One of the main reasons Coppola even made the film was because of an idea that would innovate the film-watching experience using the new tools that digital filmmaking had to offer.  He wanted to redefine what it meant to watch a movie unfold, live in the theatre.

To this end, he worked out a plan to literally “remix” the film live, responding to the audience in real time and adjusting his edit on the fly.  Perhaps this conceit was a little too ambitious, as he could never quite figure out a way to make it practical.

There’s no telling if the concept would’ve caught on had he been successful, but if it had, he would’ve revolutionized the way we consume movies and imbued the dying institution of the movie theatre with a newfound life and relevance.

Unfortunately, this was not meant to be, so Coppola was forced to edit together a definitive master cut of the film culled from the various pieces he had shot, making for consistently un-even viewing experience.  By embracing the independent realm, Coppola has empowered himself to make intensely personal work that would otherwise be compromised in the studio system.

TETRO was very clearly about Coppola’s Argentinian roots as well as his own immediate family.  TWIXT, however, takes more of a literal tack, with Coppola incorporating a subplot in which Kilmer’s character is haunted by the death of his young daughter, who died on a boating accident that he could’ve prevented had he not been too hungover to go along.

In real life, this is almost exactly what happened with Coppola’s eldest son Gian-Carlo, who was killed in a boating accident in 1986 at the tragically young age of 22.  Coppola had always felt responsible because he could’ve been there and prevented it, and TWIXT provided a conduit in which he could own up to his regret and maybe even forgive himself.

To put it simply, TWIXT was a huge failure for Coppola.  The fact that he financed it himself meant that he stood to lose a lot from a flop, and he did.  But that’s the price you pay for creative freedom.  His next project has yet to be announced, so it’s hard to ascertain as of this writing whether he’ll continue the independent route.

Given his conflict-laden history with the studios, I’d stand to venture that he does keep on self-financing his work.  Even if they’re all failures like TWIXT, their very existence is valuable because they are the manifestations of a true visionary’s unchecked creativity.


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To support Cameron’s work – Subscribe on Special.tv.

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———