Francis Ford Coppola described Rumble Fish (1983), his screen adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s young adult novel, as “an art film for teenagers.” He shot it right after making The Outsiders (1982), also adapted from a Hinton novel, but where that was a lush, operatic tale, Coppola made Rumble Fish in stylized black and white, like a teen noir seen through the eyes of a kid who has mythologized the idea of street gang chivalry to the point that he can’t see the reality through the idealization.
Matt Dillon is teenage tough guy Rusty James, a good looking, recklessly charming high school kid in the shadow of his brother The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), trying to live up to a reputation that his brother wants only to live down. He’s an aspiring juvenile delinquent with a boozer dad (Dennis Hopper) and a nice girlfriend, Patty (Diane Lane), who attends Catholic School across town. Rusty James (always the two names, like a brand) is, of course, from the wrong side of the tracks in the industrial grit of a Tulsa that time left behind and this culture of bars and boozer and packs of kids who imagine themselves as real gangs is steeped in its own mythology, or rather Rusty is steeped in the mythology that no one else seems to revere.
[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
American Graffiti begins with a shot of Curt, a recent high school graduate, driving up to Mel’s Drive-in, and it ends with Curt watching a white Thunderbird from his airplane seat as he goes off to college. Structurally speaking, therefore, the film revolves around him and his problems as he tries to decide whether or not he’s really going to get on that morning plane and leave behind him his familiar southern California hometown and its ways of life. But in between these two structural goalposts, it’s very hard at any given moment to assign Curt or anyone else the role of principal protagonist, since Lucas deliberately and very effectively plunges us into the seethingly mobile and unstable world of smalltown late adolescence à la 1962, whose coalescence and flux he creates through dispersion of characters and intrigues, crosscut to join them back together. The method is both daring and difficult since so many sets of characters pursuing their various goals could very easily get out of hand, resulting in real narrative chaos. But Lucas and his editors triumph handily over the perils and end up creating an admirably controlled narrative that describes a chaotic evening without ever descending into chaos itself.
[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]
A film made from a novel sets itself a double task. First, like all movies, it must strive to be good cinema; second, it must try to fulfill the expectations of those who have read the book. When the book is an acknowledged classic, the second becomes more important than the first. It is then incumbent upon the critic to deal fairly with the film on both levels, for many a film has succeeded as cinema despite (or even because of) its failure as an interpretation of literature. TheGreatGatsby is, alas, not one of those films.
Not that it is necessarily disappointing or dissatisfying (although what film could be fully satisfying after such a supersaturating promotion campaign?). The way to approach TheGreatGatsby is to prepare to be disappointed. If you have no illusion that the film is going to be an effective representation of the novel, then far from being disappointed, you may be pleasantly surprised. But few who love the novel will be capable of such detachment.
[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
Gene Hackman’s quietly desperate face looms huge in so many frames of Francis Ford Coppola’s most recent film that by the end of the movie we know his features just about as intimately as Harry Caul (played by Hackman) knows the lines of the conversation he has bugged. Both we and he are, in a sense, obsessed: we, the viewers, by Harry’s troubled image on the screen; Harry, by the voices he hears and the implications, slowly realized, of what those voices are saying. This hardly seems a coincidence—Coppola obviously intended it that way. Closeups, especially of Hackman, virtually fill the movie, serving perfectly to visually reinforce the theme of violated privacy with which the story is so much concerned. The correlation between those who bug and those who are bugged (bugger and buggee?) is ultimately turned into a nearly inevitable irony as Harry’s situation is reversed and he becomes the one who is watched and listened to. Indeed, the screenplay as a whole moves just a bit too predictably and ends up being too readily reachable, too readily analyzable, what with its neat ambiguities and psychological uncertainties and sticky relevancies (not to mention some of the painfully pointed dialogue: “You’re not supposed to feel anything about it,” a blond seductress says to Harry just before swiping his tapes of the conversation; “It’s just a job”). But if you’re willing to disregard some of the story’s weaknesses as narrative and actually look at the film more closely, you might find it has some visually interesting ways of “saying” things.
[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1969 movie TheRainPeople is generally referred to as one of the director’s “personal” films, by which is presumably meant (1) that the story was Coppola’s own and (2) that he didn’t have nearly the bucks which Paramount Pictures supplied for likely moneymaking projects such as TheGodfather. In light of this, it is not surprising that TheRainPeople is a quiet, modestly conceived film revolving around a minimum of characters whose problems are pretty much everybody’s problems. Alienation and lack of communication are key themes, and TheRainPeople, if less socially relevant than The Conversation, seems to be a psychologically more credible examination of the things that tend to keep people apart.
[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
Ever since the Lumière brothers first fascinated audiences with cinematic recreations of trains entering stations, waves breaking on shores, and street traffic in Paris, theories of Realism have been the aesthetic engines of the film medium. A language with an almost mystical capacity to replicate reality, film has for three-quarters of a century created and recreated its own aesthetics and, although the spectrum of approaches to film art is vast and various, nearly all of the critical theories that have been functionally important have been in some intimate way connected to that primal mimetic power of the medium. Even Expressionist theories, for 75 years opposed in dialectical tension to the Realist theories, have substance simply because the language of film is so highly replicative: if film did not have the innate power to capture reality, it certainly would not hold much interest for those whose desire is to distort it. Forty years ago Rudolf Arnheim warned against the rapid technological development of the medium which would of course only increase the power of replication and therefore limit the freedom of the artist to create “art” and relegate the camera “to the position of a mere mechanical recording machine.”
The history of film is marked by Realist mileposts: French poetic realism in the 1930s; Italian neorealism in the late Forties; the British documentary tradition; the Eastern European humanist heritage; and finally the New Wave of the last 15 years, so thoroughly rooted in the thought of André Bazin, whose influence is still central even now almost 20 years after his death. In our own country theories of realism have had a much more muted effect, especially if we judge our own film traditions against those of France or Italy or England. Yet, within its limited context, much of the best of American film shows the force of realism, from King Vidor and Raoul Walsh to John Cassavetes, from Scarface to On theWaterfront, the styles and subjects of Realism have provided American films with vitality and relevance. During the brightest period of American film—the Thirties and Forties—Warner Brothers, the studio most closely associated with the Realist tradition, is now increasingly seen to have been the major force in the studio system. The gritty and direct Warner Brothers style marked a body of films which surpass in many ways the slicker output of MGM and Paramount and give us a much more exciting and intriguing image of that past America. If the witch-hunts and Blacklists of the late Forties and early Fifties purged the studios of much of the talent that had created that emerging realist tradition, nevertheless we still had the films of Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan during the period that followed. The American film tradition, moribund in the Fifties, was near death in the Sixties and the focus of attention turned, even for most American cinephiles, to European cinema.
How did I get here? By what pixilated logic do find myself in the position of defending Francis Coppola’s The Cotton Club?
For years I’ve been pointing derisively at F.F. Crapola as a totem of pseudo-style who plunders the inspiration of better artists, and confuses art with state-of-the-art—seeking to make depth and resonance a function of how many layers he can mix on a soundtrack, how seamlessly he can bleed images together by adapting video technology to the cinema. I inveighed against reviewers who hailed the phantasmagorical bombast of ApocalypseNow as “visual power,” the chi-chi poster art of the Coppola-produced The BlackStallion as “visual poetry.” I complained that even in TheConversation (surely one of Coppola’s most respectable efforts), the central ambiguity was not only, in the last analysis, a cheat, but ambiguity by the numbers (“I could have shot this scene all these different ways” instead of “I shot it right the first time and locked everything in”). I likened the director to his sound-surveillance protagonist in that movie, who was capable of emotional involvement only with the phantoms evoked through his ultra-sophisticated sound system. And about the time One fromtheHeart emerged ice-cold from the dead air of Zoetrope Studios, most of the press had come to feel the same way.
It’s hard not to see the Zoetrope years as so much wandering in the wilderness of Coppola’s own studio “vineyard.” The best films to wear the Zoetrope logo have borne it as a letter of transit rather than a stamp of manufacture: Jean-Luc Godard’s Sauvequipeut/LaVie, Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, Phillip Borsos’ TheGrey Fox, the Kevin Brownlow reconstruction of Napoleon.
[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), October 17, 1979]
It was like another art altogether. That sombre theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.
Apocalypse Now is a dumb movie that could have been made only by an intelligent and talented man. It pushes its egregiousness with such conviction and technical sophistication that, upon first viewing, I immediately resolved to withhold firm judgment until I’d seen the film again: perhaps I’d missed some crucial irony, some ingenious framework that, properly understood, would convert apparent asininity to audacity. I didn’t find it. It isn’t there. What is there is the evidence of a reasonably talented filmmaker having spectacularly overextended himself—Francis Ford Coppola who, having had a toney pop epic widely accepted as great cinema, felt he was ready to make Citizen Kurtz.
How poetically apposite it must have seemed, that the property Orson Welles nearly undertook to film before making history with Citizen Kane was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. How artful of Destiny to have stayed his hand, so that around the end of the 1960s John Milius could show Coppola, his fellow film school alumnus, a script transposing the 1898 novella from deepest imperial Africa to the morass of the Vietnam War. Kurtz, the scholarly representative of the ivory trade turned savage demigod, would become a Special Forces officer who had started fighting both sides of the war with a private native army based upriver in Cambodia; Marlow, Conrad’s conscientious truthseeker and narrator, was to be transmuted into a hitman for the generals and an interested civilian agency.
It’s easy to see what appeal this held for Milius, with his unabashed enthusiasm for superheroes and “man’s inherent bestiality” (he has been involved subsequently with Dirty Harry, Jeremiah Johnson, The Wind and the Lion, Hardcore, and 1941, among other films). Easy to see, too, how he would have made a more directly action-oriented film out of it (the best sequence in the film, the Air Cav raid on a Vietnamese village, is pure Milius in concept, as is Robert Duvall’s surfing and napalm freak Colonel Kilgore, the only fullblooded characterization).
Coppola kept Milius’s action set-pieces but elected to frame them within a narrative structure that engenders a hallucinatory suspension, rather as the opening deathdream of Xanadu in Kane casts a spell that pervades the most dramatically vivid scenes in that film. He called his particular brand of hallucination “film opera,” and relied on it “to create a film experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam War.” It was a bold stroke, inspired, and fatally ill-advised.
A sense of narrative suspension is entirely appropriate to an adaptation of the Conrad novella, in which Marlow’s very telling of the tale is the definitive act over and above the events narrated. But Coppola’s Marlow character is unqualified to provide the ethical and emotional referent so crucial to the drama. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) begins the film in such a moral, physical, and spiritual funk that it’s impossible to conceive how he could be further undone by a journey into any heart of darkness; nor have we reason to impute to him any capacity for illumination. There is no room for him to fall into knowledge, no way for the journey upriver into the jungle to develop its proper resonance: the snake of civilization swallowing its pre-evolutionary tail. Willard is one of Coppola’s affectless monsters like Michael Corleone at the end of the Godfather saga, but without the preceding six hours of film to explain how he got that way.*
Everything is foregone. And it may be protested, of course, that that is How It Is. Mankind fell a long time ago; Vietnam was only the flowering of a corruption intrinsic to our national identity; “This is the end,” the Doors sing at the beginning. That’s profound—or sophomoric doodoo, depending how it’s put across. “Rosebud” is dollarbook Freud, as Welles called it, if you take it in isolation; but if you believe that the true Rosebud is not a sled, not a snowglobe, but the whole intricate up/down, in/out, past/present, light/dark, living/dead construct, that Citizen Kane is Citizen Kane, not a man but a movie, the sum of all the contradictory jigsaw pieces of evidence, of identity, then Rosebud is brilliant, a cinematic stab at, say, William Faulkner’s goal of writing the history of the world “between one cap and a period.”
So foregone can be good. But it takes a stylist of considerable range and power to sustain that kind of narrative suspension. Conrad was such a stylist; Welles, too. It just may be that Francis Ford Coppola is not a stylist at all. He has a good eye, he composes his frames and shot sequences with intelligent purpose, and certainly he inspires a steely concentration in his actors (he needs more from them than most directors do); but he is a one-thing-at-a-time director. A given shot makes a single, clear statement. There is no resonance—although there is sometimes a built-in interpretation of the statement that is foregrounded so deliberately it can’t resonate.
This is true even of his American art film The Conversation, a movie that seems to explore the ambiguity of media (as Kane does in spades). But whatever ambiguity it possesses is a function of the screenplay, not the direction. The central set-piece—the conversation recorded by several microphones, played back a dozen times, filtered, synthesized, and also revisualized (presumably in the mind’s eye) from a multiplicity of camera angles till it yields sinister, contradictory meanings—is fine as suspense stuff, but it’s ambiguity-by-the-numbers: “I could have shot this scene all these different ways” instead of “I shot it right the first time and locked everything in.” (Indeed, Coppola did go back and reshoot the scene when his editors called for additional footage to tinker with.)
Coppola is an excellent screenwriter (v. the achievement of polishing Mario Puzo’s The Godfather for the screen) and he has actually received more honors for his screenplays than for his direction. But he knows that the cinema is a director’s medium, that the director is superstar. Pretty clearly, he determined that Apocalypse Now would be taken first and foremost as a director’s movie (as Kane, for all the brilliance and detail of its script, is a director’s movie). And, the miscalculations about the Marlow figure aside, it is as a director’s movie that Apocalypse Now most resoundingly flops.
A lot of people who can see the problem with the film’s scenario logic and characterizations nevertheless manage to come out cheering because of the “visual power.” May I propose that “visual” is the most abused term in the filmcrit lexicon? It is not enough for a film to be full of moving subjects and moving camera, flaring lights and inky shadows, towering compositions and tricky dissolves. That can add up to arrant pictorialism, a miscellaneous lightshow, or meretricious folderol. It isn’t “visual” unless it’s informed by an organic intelligence. There is organization in Coppola’s film, but organicity it’s not. His motifs don’t grow—they merely recur. His images, even when technically impressive, don’t reverberate with possibility—they freeze up with literalness. They don’t suggest—they denote.
To take a central image in both Conrad’s novella and Welles’s film, “darkness” becomes infinitely suggestive: of corruption, and the sacred privacy of the soul; the terror of the unknown, and the bliss of unconsciousness; unanswerable Nothingness, and uncreated worlds waiting to be intuited by an artist-god. To Coppola, it means that when you get to Kurtz’s compound you turn out the lights and let Marlon Brando mumble in the dark.
Style isn’t decoration. It isn’t something an artist imposes on content. It’s the life-energy of the work of art. It’s life itself. The best artists feel awe toward their medium. It doesn’t seem to hold any terror for Coppola. He’s not a stylist—he’s a technologist who confuses art with state-of-the-art. Harry Caul in The Conversation could get emotionally involved only with the phantoms created through his sophisticated sound system; the centrality of technology to the method of that film prefigures the creative formula of Apocalypse Now. Coppola can buy better technology than anyone who’s made movies before. He knows that 70mm cinematography is capable of incredible richness and texture, and that Walter Murch can mix more levels on a soundtrack than you can even identify. This produces a kind of depth, geophysically speaking, but other sorts are missing. Coppola’s film is “operatic” because it’s heightened—and thin.
In thrall of the kinesthetic firepower available to him, apparently confident that it will lift anything to new levels of expressiveness, Coppola perpetrates some of the most astonishing banalities in the history of prestige pictures. A phantasmagoric U.S.O. show in a Vietnam lagoon is a zapper for about as long as it takes Willard’s river patrol boat to round the bend and afford a good look at it; after that, it’s endless fascination with a Hugh Hefner Playmate rubbing an M-16 between her thighs, which seems to have something to do with sex and violence. A sun- and drug-zonked surfer in the boat crew paints his face like military camouflage and basks in the constant flickering of a meaningless night battle; Kurtz later appears similarly daubed, and of course there are all those primitive Cambodians painted head to toe: who is civilized and who is savage?! The man who once orchestrated the stunning juxtaposition of a Corleone baptism and the nationwide elimination of the family’s enemies here has Kurtz’s natives slaughtering a ceremonial bullock while (can you dig it?) Willard swims through some handy primeval slime to assassinate Kurtz. It’s as if Coppola were making an audiovisual aid for people who had never been introduced to any of these concepts before.
And yet he reaches the nadir when straining for the most intellectual—and silliest—signification. Both Kurtz and a spacey disciple of his (Dennis Hopper) quote T.S. Eliot—and not only Eliot, but “The Hollow Men,” a poem that bears an epigraph from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness! And then the camera tips portentously to discover copies of From Ritual to Romance and The Golden Bough—Eliot’s key mythic source material in composing “The Waste Land”—lying in Kurtz’s quarters. I mean, what the hell does the man think he is doing? Are we to understand that Brando’s Kurtz knows there was an earlier, fictional Kurtz whose footsteps he is retracing? Is this the ultimate form of narrative suspension? Is Coppola indicating his own serene acceptance of the inevitability with which Apocalypse Now will be subsumed in the racial consciousness?
Apocalypse Now is nothing if not an attempt to make a serious and important work of art. One must admire Coppola’s crazy courage in laying fortune, career, even his home on the line to get the film made. And if he reached beyond his range as an artist, well, that is an honorable failing. But one thing is unforgivable. Francis Coppola based his film on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; he even went back to Conrad to restore material omitted from that first John Milius screenplay. Almost everything that is any good in the film, that has lasting power to disturb, is based on Conrad’s original vision. A seaman from the Polish Ukraine, who learned to use the English language with a majesty and subtlety few have equaled, created one of the definitive works of—and on—the Western imagination. There are no credits on Coppola’s film, but the programme book has columns of them. Joseph Conrad’s name is never mentioned, although a photo caption reverently notes: “September 3, 1976. Marlon Brando arrives. He reads Heart of Darkness and shaves his head for the Colonel Kurtz role.”
Richard T. Jameson
*The reference, in 1979, was to The Godfather and The Godfather Part Two; G-III was made in 1990.