The Films of Francis Ford Coppola
Over the last month or so I have had the pleasure of re-watching the films of Francis Ford Coppola. Out of at least five films deserving of entry into the pantheon, Coppola contributes an astonishing three (which is mightily impressive considering the output of that decade-the seventies) the other two being Star Wars and Taxi Driver. It is even more remarkable when one is aware that the budding director was nearly fired from the Godfather, which would have robbed us of the Conversation, Godfather part two and Apocalypse Now. It also needs to be stressed that, like Radiohead with its dazzlingly eccentric output , every movie Coppola directed (and produced and co-written) was in some ways a reaction or answer to the previous one. With the exception of the difficult but rewarding Conversation every movie is a filmic feast, filled with the best of American talent, narratives that are gripping and absorbing, that mirror the politics of its time and paradoxically are personal and intimate, that aesthetically in many ways capture both the mood of European art house and film noir of the 1950’s. (which in turn had its roots in European art.)
It would of course be a crime and a sin to omit the names that helped make the films what they are. Set designer Dean Tavoularis, composer Nino Rota and Francis’s own father Carmine, Cinematographers Gordon Willis and Vittorio Storaro, editor and sound designer Walter Murch. Writing contributions from Mario Puzo (the author of the Godfather) John Milius and Michael Herr. Acting talent that of course includes many of the best actors of the last fifty years but consider how less rich the films would be without the likes of Richard S Castellano (Clemenza) Sterling Hayden (capt McCluskey) John Cazale (Fredo and Stan,) G.D Spradlin (Senator Geary and General Corman) Lawrence Fishburn (Mr Clean) Lee Strasberg (Hyman Roth) The uniqueness and richness of the characters both in writing, acting and personality is echoed in another great American achievement--David Simon’s The Wire.
It is worth remembering some of the things that went on in the making of the Godfather. I strongly recommend by the way the Godfather boxset with its wonderful documentary materials and interviews. According to these behind the scenes and reminisces, Coppola wasn’t much wanted as director, he recalls how he was sitting in a toilet stall only to hear fellow crewmembers bad mouth him. Perhaps its apochrya but Coppola was meant to be fired the weekend over which they shot the great Sollozzo assassination scene in which Al Pacino has his first moment of glory and Michaels first moment of malignancy. What a scene to be saved by, Coppola stayed and the rest as they say in the business is history.
Michael (Al Pacino) dominates the Godfather films, or rather haunts them. Even when not present, his brooding, calculating malevolence is ever felt. Critic David Thomson suggests Michael visibly seems to retreat into the darkness. In the flashback scenes in number two, we along with Michael find it painful yet unable to prevent the existential contemplation of the past, searching for the answers to what went wrong in the present. Michael is a lonely figure, left at the end of Godfather two with a pyrrhic victory that is more like ironic tragedy without a trace of self knowing cynicism or humour to leaven the increasingly cramped and claustrophobic air of his fort (prison?) at Lake Tahoe.
Michael’s tragedy is also presented as America tragedy and the trial and sorrow of every man who has to live up to some kind of ideal whether that be a tradition or some great ancestor or indeed father. John McCain’s autobiography is called Faith of my Fathers, he will have to spend the rest of his years contemplating himself as third time nearly been, a man who surrendered himself to the Rovian mudslinging politics that he deplored (when directed against himself) in his first run for President in 2000. He may also go down in history as the man who brought the Christian fascist and fantasist? Sarah Palin into the spotlight and potential 2012 presidential victory. The tragedy is (as Aristotle pointed out long ago) that the things you hold dear, the beliefs and values and emotions that you cherish are the very things that lead you to despair, failure and solitude. Michael loved his father and his father was a loved man but he was also a criminal, a gangster and a murderer. The flashbacks scenes in Godfather 2 have the quality of a romanticized and sanitized past that every leader and conservative re-witnesses history whether political or personal. When Michael stands before the priest in Part 1 and renounces Satan while standing at the foot of an orgy of chilling violence which Coppola masterfully cross cuts and scores to Catholic liturgy- Michael is presented as the poker faced representative of a soulless hypocrisy- Catholic and Capitalist. Thirty years earlier his father would have been standing in the same position with the same attitude and contempt for the Church and the pezzanovante, only Vito carries his criminality and contempt off with a certain rustic charm, his Machiavell/capitalist machinations shrouded by words like honour and respect and dignity.
The themes of power, certainty of leaders and the consequences that follow from their actions are the bedrock of Coppola’s themes throughout his films of this period.
In the Conversation, Harry Caul, has knowledge of a potential murder, he is certain (wrongly) of the people who are the malevolent forces and the consequences of his actions here see the murder of the innocent and the destruction of his own flimsy walls of sanity. Like Michael and Kurtz, Caul is in an existentialist dilemma. Does he hold true to his core beliefs or loosen them? He has the power of life and death but he is unsure of how to act. How does one know that ones actions are right? Kurtz is “clear” in his mind but his soul is “mad”. Michael follows the logic of extirpation ruthlessly but is hollow and emotionally vacuous as a result. Caul has neither the intelligence nor the clear thinking logic of these two yet in many ways he ends up the worse, reduced to madness and insanity, the knowledge? That one is being watched and that ones very secrets or guilty action is known and there is nothing one can do about it.
There is an irony here and Coppola’s fellow film-maker and Catholic friend Scorsese would know it only two well. Caul specialises in ear dropping, listening in on peoples secrets, spying that has and will have terrible consequences. Mentioning the title Godfather with the image of puppeteering gives the game away. (never mind Kurtz’s deification--spot James Frazer’s Golden Bough as one of his set texts for a modern re-creation of a far east Yahweh with M16 Assault rifles and machetes. Caul at the end of the film undergoes a breakdown, a potent symbol. I observed to myself has this not been Caul’s condition for the entirety of his life? As a serious and guilt-prone Catholic--what else would there be to expect? All very well having an all seeing and knowing God if your filled with loving and kind thoughts-not if you’re a solipsistic misanthrope like Caul. I had a conversation once with a Zen Priest--an ex Catholic who recounted how relieving it was to have this concept of a permanent CCTV camera removed from his mind.
The Conversation was made in between GD1 and GD2. It is a much smaller film, far less grandiose and fully demonstrates a side of Coppola that many people miss--that is the introverted and pensive Francis, the man who would drive himself to near destruction on Apocalypse Now. Before that though, Coppola laid to rest any doubt as to his talent with Godfather 2. It’s a very rare thing indeed that a sequel of something actually exceeds the first. Watching the Godfather 2 again confirmed it. The unrelenting, underlying misery and folly of the 1950’s story juxtaposed with the simple, rustic and dreamily romantic flashbacks of Vito’s rise to power is deftly engineered. Pacino comes into his own in the film, even manages to outdo arguably his greatest scene of the Sollozzo execution when he smashes his rebelling and protestant and non-Italian wife’s face in over her abortion. It is the only sign of mental or emotional weakness in Michael, the only time he drops his cool, logical macho intellect. (the other snap which is related was when Tom Hagan informs him of the “miscarriage” “was it a boy?” “Mikey after 3 months…” “Cant You Give A Straight Answer Anymore! Was it a Boy?!”
GD2 does answer a charge though that was labelled at the first film. That it glamorised the gangsters. I believe there is some truth to this. But it is this truth that adds power to the Godfather 2. Unlike the last one were we could and did enjoy the vanquishing of the families enemies and cheer on the many murders--we are not allowed this in number two. Even when Vito kills we sit in stony faced silence.
Themes of the certainty of power, the consequences of violence, moral hypocrisy are fully treated in Apocalypse Now Redux but still without any conclusion. I was stunned watching this film again, I already considered it the most impressive film I have seen but seeing it again on a widescreen with surround sound (I await the day of seeing it in the cinema) was an experience, a thrill that few other films have ever delivered.
The opening! What with the Doors, the images of helicopters swooning in slow motion across bombed out trees lines, lit up with Napalm. On cue to the lyrics, Willard’s stoned out and burned out face appears. Coppola has always been a great visual storyteller but the number of things both profound and subtle and small in this sequence can only be described in the words cinematic genius. But there is so much! After that intro, consider the next crescendo--of Willard going mad and wrecking his room. Two masterpiece scenes in under ten minutes. The briefing/dinner scene, shot mostly from Willard’s Point of View is another ace. Coppola is a rare thing, especially today, a moviemaker who has an impressive ability for large beautiful bombastic films that are also rich in detail, nuance, thematic obsession and concern for actors. Though he made a few more masterpieces since--his decline is one of the saddest things in American movies.
Is Apocalypse Now an anti war film? Its worth asking, for it can be assumed that it is without justification. I would say no, or rather I would say its an anti-establishment film or again to put it more pointedly--one mans personal journey, polemic and self-destruction (Kurtz and Coppola’s) against hierarchy and bureaucracy. Sam Peckinpah would have appreciated the film immensely. Coppola in retrospect has been cast as a member of a group of young turks who would shake up and eventually re-establish the film business and studios in the 1970’s. Their names are well known but it would seem that Coppola really did despise much of the studio system that was still potent despite the relaxing of the Hays code that constricted the industry since the thirties. Coppola wanted to go it alone, “he got off the boat he split from the whole fucking program”. He created Zoetrope studios to do personal films outside the mainstream. For a while it was working. The dream ended a little later in the 1980’s with the failure of the Cotton Club. In some ways I picture Kurtz as Coppola and Willard as the ambivalent and ambiguous George Lucas who’s career Coppola gave lift to, which in an almost oedipal move killed his dream off. Star Wars along with Jaws killed the possibility of a mature and thoughtful and entertaining American cinema. Perhaps that is too harsh, that the banality of much of what we see today would have won out anyway. Perhaps though like in Vietnam, a small victory could have been achieved, or, rather the forestalment of defeat and despair could have been kept at bay for a few more years.
When Willard kills Kurtz and emerges as the new God, when he drifts back to civilisation, the flat and Zen and stoned out face is our face. The “witness” to so much, so many explosions and settings suns, so much fuck of eloquence of soldiers shooting at the shit. Words cannot capture the almost mystical and religious aura of much of Apocalypse Now, there is much in human experience that words cannot express that are much better “understood” in music or images. Drugs help, was Coppola dropping Acid like Lance? Carmine Coppola’s score which would sound cheesy and ridiculous in any other setting accurately gets the mood of this film-fucked up-out of sync, stoned and wasted, wistful and dreamy. The movie stays with you, days later walking down the street or driving in the city at night, snatches of music come back to you, lines of dialogue, images of helicopters flying across your vision. “the Horror the Horror”.