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I think it should go without saying that Francis Ford Coppola is one of the finest filmmakers from the New Hollywood era that we have left today. He may not be as passionate about it as he once was, but as with all artists, they mellow with age. His current film output is sparse but a little more interesting and with more integrity than most of his contemporaries: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma, to name a few. In my opinion, a lot of those filmmakers, who gave us some of the best and most entertaining movies in the history of the industry, are still out to capture their former glories and stay on top of the game by either trying to outdo other filmmakers or improve the technology so much that their films become an afterthought in the process. It just seems to be Francis Ford Coppola’s way of going about it to not be in competition with himself or anyone else. He just wants to make films, and he does. What we as the audience get out of it are some interesting and beautiful films. They may not be box office hits and opinions will vary on their entertainment value, but he does them on his own terms. He tells stories that he wants to tell, seemingly without any fear of losing money or positive critique in the process. I may have this all wrong, but judging from what he does nowadays (and especially the financial troubles he went through to make films in the past), it certainly feels that way to me.
His first big success came in 1972 with The Godfather, which was, of course, heralded as the greatest film ever made at the time. He topped himself two years later with The Godfather Part II and The Conversation, both released the same year (the former of which is still seen as one of the greatest sequels to a film ever made). He then set out to make one of the most complicated and expensive films ever made, Apocalypse Now. After the success of that film is when he really began a downhill journey from an artist to a director for hire and back to being an artist again. It all started with One From the Heart, which is one of the biggest box office flops to ever come along. Consequently, he spent the profits he earned from his next several films (including The Godfather Part III) to pay back what he owed for that film. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s when Bram Stoker’s Dracula was released that he seemed to be blossoming into his own as an artist again. Around this time he also began doing other things and trying new business ventures, like building and maintaining his own winery. Today, he only occasionally has the urge to make a film, and when he does, he tackles projects with gentler and more world-weary eyes and hands. I suppose it could be his way of having self-expression as something to fall back on. In any case, he’s seemingly out to please only himself.
As far as what my favorite Coppola film is, it’s an enormously difficult question to answer. There was a time when I probably would have immediately said Apocalypse Now, or even The Conversation. Even The Godfather and The Godfather Part II come to mind. The truth is that I adore everything that he does, and like a group of children, choosing one that is heads and tails above the other one just doesn’t seem fair. There are lots of gems in the Coppola library to choose from as well, and not just the big tentpole titles. Let’s not forget Peggy Sue Got Married, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish or his contribution to New York Stories. You also can’t leave out his more recent films Youth Without You and Tetro. Let’s also not forget about Patton, which he co-wrote but didn’t direct. Needless to say, the man’s output of material is quite illustrious, and each film is special in one way or another, be it for the cinematography, performances, story, etc. Distilling all of that work down into one film and declaring it his magnum opus feels out of place to me. Instead, let’s take a closer look at the five films in the Francis Ford Coppola: 5-Film Collection set for a bit of further analysis.
Coppola’s answer to the paranoiac political thriller The Conversation is about as different from anything that he’s ever made. It actually seems more like a Brian De Palma film, at least on the surface. I’m sure that Coppola didn’t have a particular type of film in mind at the time, but that’s what it ended up being anyways. It’s also a film he wasn’t heavily involved in writing, but he’s so hands on with every facet of the production, including the acting and the dialogue, that it’s very much his film. Gene Hackman’s performance also deserves mention because it’s quite fantastic, showing a side of himself that we rarely see, which is a vulnerable human being. He’s so paranoid by everyone around him that the only way he can talk about himself personally is in his dreams, and when he does relent in the real world, he’s ridiculed slightly for it. The piano score from David Shire is also great, a score which was a kind of rarity in those days (still is). The film is expertly paced to draw you in, taking a bit of inspiration from Blow-Up, but it’s also one of the edgiest and darkest films in the thriller genre. Technically it’s not quite a thriller, but that’s about as close to a genre as it gets. As I stated previously, it was released the same year as The Godfather Part II, both films of which swept up the Oscar nominations that year. I can’t imagine any other filmmaker being in that kind of position and still managing to come out on top.
If I had a gun to my head and somebody forced me to pick a pearl from the necklace, then it would probably be Apocalypse Now. There’s just something about the film that I find both incredibly intriguing and endlessly fascinating. It always keeps me coming back for more with its purely in-your-face attitude, as well as magnificent performances, score and visuals. The stories of the making of the film are also just as interesting as the film itself, which probably plays a lot into the mysticism of the piece as a whole. The sheer madness of the behind the scenes craziness made its way onto the frames of the film itself, going hand in hand with its subject matter. Yet to me, both are one and the same, and I find it difficult to separate that knowledge of the making of the film while watching it. I think it’s also because it’s one of the greatest imperfect films ever made. An assembled five and a half hour movie whittled down to two and a half hours was no easy task, especially when the film winds up being something entirely different from what it was originally intended to be in the first place.
Apocalypse Now Redux
There’s also the alternate version of the film simply titled Apocalypse Now Redux. In all fairness, this isn’t my favorite version of the film, for a variety of reasons (I’m among the majority on this one for once). Mostly because the film was fine the way it was. The new footage introduced into the body of the film seems to weaken the narrative rather than strengthen it. I don’t mind that this version exists, as long as the original is left intact, and that’s the case here. To me, the film is about what it ended up being originally: going into the heart of darkness and destroying the evil, not stopping off to have a 20 minute discussion with a French plantation owner, but that’s one fellow’s opinion.
One From the Heart
Coppola’s greatest box office failure, One From the Heart, is anything but a failure when it comes to the value of the work put into it. Shot entirely at Zoetrope Studios, the film is extraordinary to look at. It’s obvious right away that all 26 million dollars is there on the screen for all to see. Sure the film has pacing issues, but everyone gives marvelous performances, the sets are spectacular, the costumes are wonderful, the cinematography and lighting are exquisite and, as always, the direction is strong. It’s in the writing where the movie fails really. It isn’t that it’s bad, it’s just that a story of this type isn’t really for everyone. The music and the choreography are marvelous, of course; the former courtesy of Tom Waits, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work. The film is quite bluesy in nature, and probably not one that you’ll want to watch too many times, but that’s not a negative response from me. One thing’s for sure: Francis Ford Coppola may sometimes fail, but when he does, he fails enormously.
Despite how I feel about it, people would definitely consider Coppola’s latter-day output to be mostly underwhelming, but I beg to differ. Stacked up against his great successes of the past, a film like Tetro may seem smaller and unimportant by comparison, but it’s also by design. Partially biographical in nature, Tetro is akin to The Godfather, Part II because of its narrative structure, with things taking place in the past and the present simultaneously. I like that the previous events are in color, when Tetro’s life was different, but it’s also difficult to tell whose point of view the film is actually from. Is it Bennie’s, and is he reliving past events in his mind, or is it the other way around, and Tetro’s life is now dark and monochromatic in nature because of past events? It’s a tough call, but one thing is certain: it’s still a good story, either way. It’s told mostly well, despite the enormously-long running time, which feels longer than it actually is. I found the film to be visually-arresting (unsurprisingly), as well as engaging story-wise. Is it Coppola’s best effort? No. Is it a good, or even great effort? Yes, and that’s good enough for me.
Tetro should also prove my previous point that Coppola is out to make personal projects and not worry winning popularity contests or keeping up with what’s going on technically in the industry (not like he was during the early 1980’s anyway). Again, he’s not out to recapture former glories, only to make films. I think he knows that he’s past his prime, so he instead tackles smaller subjects, and dare I say, more interesting subjects. It’s honest filmmaking, and that seems to be becoming more and more of a rarity these days. He doesn’t have to make these films, he just wants to, and I’m glad that he does. Because of this, I can always count on something of quality from him without second-guessing it.
And with that, let’s take a look at my review of this Blu-ray collection:
And that’s all from me for now.
- Tim Salmons