Posted in: Essays

Altman and Coppola in the Seventies: Power and the People

[Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is currently reissuing a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. Author Bob Cumbow is a member of the Parallax View collective and his essays are being published simultaneously on Parallax View. The essay below was first published on 11/26/2005, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor). Thanks to Gelderblom and Keith Uhlich for giving their blessing to this collaboration.]

(Caricature Zone)Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola, arguably the two pivotal figures of American cinema in the 1970s, both rose from the turmoil of the transition from studio-based to independent production, to emerge as leading forces in film production as well as film style. Each eventually formed his own production company – Altman’s Lion’s Gate, Coppola’s American Zoetrope – and patronized the work of aspiring young film-makers (such as Altman’s nurturing of Alan Rudolph and Coppola’s of Caleb Deschanel).


Though Altman’s films compare with Coppola’s as chamber music does with grand opera, their work in the 1970s exemplifies what ultimately became the prevailing style of American film direction in that era: maverick resistance to studio-imposed time and budget constraints, insistence on directorial authorship, reliance on location shooting, use of improvisational acting, an emphasis on ensemble playing rather than star performances, Fordian gatherings – weddings, church services, parties, dinners – as exponents of group character (both Altman and Coppola had Catholic upbringings), and a revisionist approach to the mythic archetypes of the Hollywood genre film.

Each in his own way overhauls, even debunks, the generic conventions of the war film, road film, crime film, screwball comedy, and private eye film established in the heyday of the moguls. An important part of that overhaul is the rejection of the star system, and the consistent suppression of the very notion of “star” – and often of the star himself: Altman’s radical alteration of Paul Newman’s screen image is as crucial as Coppola’s of Brando’s. Moreover, more so than most of their contemporaries, both directors rely on supporting characters and unknown actors to carry the burden of a film. Altman distributes attention among so many players that there is no clear “star;” or he discredits the very idea of stardom or screen heroism (The Long Goodbye, Nashville, Buffalo Bill and the Indians). Coppola acts directly on the star to evoke a self-effacing, even self-abusive performance (most memorably Gene Hackman in The Conversation and Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now).

The relation of star to supporting players, of mythic hero to the community, and, of course, of the artist to his public is manifest in Altman’s and Coppola’s abiding concern with the workings of power. In each director’s films of the 1970s, character is defined in terms of the individual’s response to the temptations and demands of power. Altman is interested in the relation between power and performance. For him, power imposes, as in Greek tragedy, the dilemma of a choice between equally painful courses of action (the forced service of the doctors of M*A*S*H, the sell-or-die option offered John McCabe by Harrison Shaughnessy); but the choice carries with it the opportunity to assert a higher kind of freedom (the doctors of the 4077th save lives and subvert military authority; McCabe founds a community as much through resistance and death as through entrepreneurism). Coppola is more concerned with the struggle between power and traditional morality. In his world, the free man is nothing (Michael Corleone at the beginning of The Godfather, Harry Caul throughout The Conversation, Captain Willard at the opening of Apocalypse Now) until he adapts to the demands of power, even embraces power for its own sake.

What happened in the world of movie-making between the Hollywood of the 1950s and that of the 1970s was not a weakening but a redistribution of power. Not coincidentally, the redistribution of power is exactly what Altman and Coppola, in different ways, made their most enduring films about.

I wonder how such a degenerate man ever attained a position of responsibility in the Army Medical Corps?
He was drafted.
—Conversation between a military nurse and a military chaplain, M*A*S*H

Robert Altman
Robert Altman

For the theatre full of GIs with whom I first saw M*A*S*H in 1970, that reference to the draft was the high point of the film. This was clearly a Vietnam-era movie, the dilemma of the surgeons a neat metaphor for the one each 1970 draftee had faced. The draft is the moral basis of M*A*S*H: It is the arbitrary, faceless intrusion of power that forces the free man to choose between undesirable alternatives (in 1970, prison, expatriation, or forced service and the face of death). The surgeons’ assertion of freedom and humanistic values in the Korean War of M*A*S*H parallels what happened in the Vietnam era when a like-minded generation of draftees, pressed into service of a cause most of them opposed, forced the military to adapt to them.

At the height of anti-Vietnam protest from within the ranks, a dissenting army psychiatrist wrote that military psychiatry is a contradiction in terms, since psychiatry aims to help the individual realize himself, while the military depends upon conforming him to the group. The same kind of collision makes rebels of the doctors and nurses of M*A*S*H. Stealing a jeep turns military structure against itself: When everything is “issued,” what is theft? Where war itself is justified, anything can be justified.

Religious values are crudely perverted (the self-defeating fanaticism of Major Frank Burns) or utterly lost (the charming ineffectuality of “Dago Red” Mulcahy). “Military chaplain” is also a contradiction in terms, and Father Mulcahy seems to realize it. The Last Supper parody, from Buñuel out of Da Vinci, stresses the absence of substantive religious values in the formalized wasteland of the military at war.

Altman has peppered M*A*S*H with reminders of the popular “snafu” war-comedy films of the 1940s and 1950s. This is very much to the point, for in its revision of the prevailing trend of Hollywood comedy, away from plot contrivance and toward the spontaneous, improvisational comedy of individual assertiveness, M*A*S*H attacks that worn genre and the values that created it. “War comedy” is the biggest contradiction of all.

I dont make deals.
—Dog Butler, bearhunter, McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Contempt for authority and embrace of moral absurdism color all of Altman’s films of the 1970s. Subjectivism is the only reality in such internalized fantasies as That Cold Day in the Park, Brewster McCloud, Images, 3 Women, and Quintet. In the pre-civilized world of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a primitive ethic prevails. Kathleen Murphy perceptively noted that there is no need of law, lawyers, or enforcers until the faceless, relentless firm of Harrison Shaughnessy enters the film. In California Split, a post-civilization film, the exemplar of power is money, and once its mystique fades, so does the whole complex structure of contemporary American values. Ultimately, nothing matters: The staggering amount Bill owes, his job, the women, his overwhelming winning streak, his friendship with Charlie – all conventional cares give way to the apocalyptic anarchy of M*A*S*H and the elevated liberation of Nashville‘s “It Don’t Worry Me.”

I got poetry in me! I do!
—John McCabe, businessman

There is a peculiarly Joycean sensibility in much of Altman’s work. Nashville‘s satirical optimism, from “We must be doin’ somethin’ right” and “Yes, I do” to “It Don’t Worry Me,” is an ironic but joyous refrain like Molly Bloom’s “yes i will yes.” Nashville is, in fact, remarkably reminiscent of Ulysses: Witness the long, episodic design; the mixture of the satirical with the nightmarishly painful; the layering of mythic archetypes over the comings and goings of small characters through a real city over a well-defined period of time; the revelry in the possibilities of cinematic style (like Joyce’s festival of literary parody and typographical experimentation); and the celebration of human frailty over the strictures of society.

If Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus evokes Daedalus the designer of the labyrinth, Brewster McCloud evokes Daedalus the builder of wings. But Brewster fails as Daedalus, and is destroyed like Icarus because he reached too high. A quieter variation on the same idea is the visual metamorphosis of Sueleen Gaye into a caryatid on the stage of Nashville’s Parthenon.

Altman’s best examination of the tension between spiritual ideal and fleshly reality that informs all myth is McCabe and Mrs. Miller. John McCabe and Constance Miller build their business on appeal to the flesh: whoring, drinking, gambling. The ironically-named town of Presbyterian Church grows around their industriousness, while its namesake remains unfinished and empty. The church’s outer shell is completed with the placement of a spire by the preacher, while McCabe’s chippies arrive to the tune of “Sisters of Mercy.” As long as McCabe and Mrs. Miller flourish, the church stands empty. Constance cautions John not to give his whores time to relax or they’ll surely turn to religion. The preacher is placed in tacit opposition to McCabe – an opposition that becomes explicit when McCabe seeks shelter in the church during the climactic gun battle: The preacher drives him out at gunpoint.

A moment later, Dog Butler, gunning for McCabe, shoots the preacher instead, and a dropped oil lamp sets the church ablaze. The fire, fought by the villagers, is extinguished only after the three hunters and their prey – McCabe – are dead. Mrs. Miller, who has seen the futility of McCabe’s stand and has failed to comprehend his self-image (perhaps because she does not understand America), loses herself in a deeper commitment to opium.

Brewster McCloud, John McCabe, and Nashville‘s Barbara Jean are pioneers of the human spirit, transcending and transforming the society around them. They represent the best the human race has to offer.

Freezin my soul, thats what youre doin, just freezin my soul.
—John McCabe, poet

Power in Altman’s films tends to destroy people or turn them into symbols – or both. Even in their raucous assertion of freedom, the surgeons of M*A*S*H become symbols of defiance. Their distance from their own identities is slammed home in the shock-cut of a docking troopship and cheering crowd inserted into the silence following the announcement of Hawkeye’s and Duke’s transfer home. The significance of Brewster McCloud and of John McCabe is more enduring than the men themselves. Quintet transforms the ice-world of McCabe and Mrs. Miller into a frozen world-soul, proposing a quietly violent parlor game, with a name from chamber music, as a metaphor for life. On one level, 3 Women is about people who make symbols of themselves: Millie is the archetypal American consumer, Pinky turns herself into an image of Millie, Willie is the kind of mystery-creature she paints, and Edgar’s studied adoption of the trappings of the B-western gunman indirectly authors his own demise. The progress of Nashville is a process whereby its characters, objects, and events contrive to become symbols.

You dont belong in Nashville!
—Haven Hamilton, country star

For his mythic statement, Brewster McCloud usurps the Astrodome, home of football. Nashville’s Opryland is a forum for the musical equivalent of football, and its Parthenon a metaphor for both the endurance of America and its overhaul of the Athenian principles of democracy. When Barbara Jean sings “My Idaho Home,” a paean to what she – and America – have lost, singer, song, and stage are metamorphosed before our eyes and those of the kid with the gun. Kenny fires not at an individual but at a symbol – and thereby steals the scene. He’s a performer, too, with a gun in his fiddle case.

Do you want to go see Nine to Five?
Whos in it?
Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton.
But I thought you liked those people.
I liked them when they were entertainers. I don’t like them now they’ve become Statements.
—Conversation with my wife

How do the people, the mass, the audience deal with the power inherent in their heroes? What are real heroes (as opposed to “stars”) like? Altman is always asking these questions. His most direct approaches to the tension between person and symbol – his 1970s “showbiz” movies Brewster McCloud, Nashville, and Buffalo Bill and the Indians – deal with the difference between person and star, between entertainer and statement. Casting Paul Newman as Buffalo Bill, the living lie who is always more comfortable with made-up history than with real identity and responsibility, Altman attempted a definitive statement about show people that, unfortunately, mixes uneasily with Arthur Kopit’s definitive statement about the American Indians.

In the Nashville airport there’s a poster of singer Connie White, and someone has slapped a Hal Phillip Walker campaign sticker across it. Tom, Bill and Mary hurry past, but Bill stops long enough to observe, “Wait a minute! Hal Phillip Walker looks exactly like Connie White!” This mock-confusion of star with politician is an early preparation for the grimmer confusion of star with politician that climaxes the film.

Since the Romantic revolution, western society has increasingly placed the mantle of priest on the shoulders of either the politician or the performer, and in the 1970s, Altman was already commenting on this cultural confusion. In true Altmanesque fashion, at the end of the decade the United States would elect a former movie star to the presidency.

In Nashville, Barbara Jean’s importance as both celebrant and victim of a ritual sacrifice is prepared by the film’s methodical use of religious imagery. Altman cuts from Mary’s quiet adoration of Tom in bed to a stained-glass Christ; her upward glance echoed by the upward angle from which the camera begins a slow descent along the church window. The cut contrasts the contemporary mythos of Saturday Night with the Christian mythos of Sunday Morning, while comparing two kinds of worship and love. The montage continues through three different church services, ending with a humble tableau of wheelchaired Barbara Jean in the hospital chapel, singing, “He walks with me and He talks with me …”

She’s an unlikely Christ, but a Christ nonetheless, with a Palm Sunday processional (the airport), an Agony in the Garden (the outdoor concert), a public crucifixion, and an exuberant resurrection. Less appreciated is Brewster McCloud, a pagan priest who falls because he has given up his virginity. Brewster is an unacceptable offering to the gods.

When its over, it gets real sad.
—The end of a wedding, and a marriage, in A Wedding

The title sequence of Brewster McCloud is a tilt-down from blue sky to band and singers rehearsing the national anthem. At the end of the film, the movement is echoed in a fast downward swish-pan to Brewster’s crumpled body, almost under the feet of the circus parade. Nashville, by contrast, begins with the camera still as the door of the Walker-Talker-sleeper rises; and ends with the world holding still as the camera rises, lifting us for the first time above those singers and that massive flag, then stopping-down to bring blue sky into proper exposure before fade-out. The two films, in all their remarkable imagistic similarity, describe a fall from the divine to the depths of fleshly failure, and an ascent through Purgatory to Paradise regained.

Too often Nashville is discussed in terms of Altman’s “bleak view” of America at the Bicentennial. For all his cynical satire, Altman infuses the film with much that is positive about Americans, and climaxes with an exhilarating reaffirmation of life in the face of death and despair. Both Brewster and Barbara Jean become symbols of the aspirations, struggles, successes and failures of the American Dream, and are destroyed at the peak of their identification with all that is most typically American. Society destroys its heroes? Perhaps. Maybe the People participate vicariously in the fall of the hero, then revel in the passing of the myth. Celebration of the enduring community is the province of the People, not of individuals. Altman’s is a Fordian sort of populism: Brewster McCloud‘s circus parade and Nashville‘s “It Don’t Worry Me” both evoke resurrection, but of the community, not of the fallen hero.

The people of Presbyterian Church put out the fire while McCabe dies: The moment of the little guy’s destruction is again the moment of reaffirmation of the community spirit. Insofar as the community survives the hero, it may be said to participate in his destruction. Yet this is not a matter for mourning, for the hero’s legacy makes survival of the community possible, and that is worth celebrating.

The central conceit of Nashville, and of all Altman’s work in the 1970s, is to blur, even obliterate, the distinction between performers and their audiences; between entertainers and their statements about the community; between individuals and society; and, of course, between movie-images and movie-goers. In Nashville, Altman picks his characters out of crowds, and puts them back there; follows one, then another; watches them or leaves them alone (a conceit that he would later exaggerate in the self-satirical and Welles-lampooning opening shot of The Player). They attract our attention from within the frame more often than they conspicuously enter it. In A Wedding there are twice as many characters to keep track of in the same way, too many of whom, in mid-shot, look like too many of the others – which is of course part of
the point of both A Wedding (as it is, much later, of Gosford Park).

Altman’s use of a resident stock company of actors, à la Bergman, gives his world a hermetic, mythic property, while stressing his underlying populism. Every time an Altman hero is ritualistically destroyed, like the Fisher King (Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville), or punctured and debunked (The Long Goodbye, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Quintet), or dispersed among so many characters that no more distinction exists between lead and supporting player (M*A*S*H, Nashville, A Wedding, Health), the star system and “old Hollywood” are subverted, along with the top-down capitalistic hierarchy that created them.

We’re not supposed to be in Cambodia.
—GIs confront the limitation on human behavior, and imperceptibly cross the line, Apocalypse Now

The Fisher-King is celebrated and destroyed. The individual is replaced by the community, just as families and friendships are replaced by alliances in Quintet (and, by the way, in The Godfather). Power is transformed, redefined, redistributed; the People survive; and it remains for the Poet to chronicle the passing of the Hero. The centrality of this timeless mythic experience to contemporary life and art is insisted upon in Apocalypse Now, where we see conspicuously displayed copies of the poems of T.S. Eliot, Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, and the omnipresent spectre, however disturbed, of Joseph Conrad. Altman’s world borders, and minutely overlaps, that of Francis Ford Coppola.

Michael, were bigger than U. S. Steel!
—Hyman Roth, The Godfather, Part II

Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola

The two Godfather films of the 1970s form a sweeping parable about the decline of the family in America. They are built on a series of formalized, family-based rituals central to the Italian-Catholic mythos: Baptism, First Communion, wedding, feast, festival, funeral. The “family”-centered world of organized crime is a metaphor – perhaps an equation – for the ruthless, dehumanizing practice of American capitalism (of which the making of movies is inescapably a part). Based first on family structure and the need to protect interests closest to home and heart (Vito), corporate enterprise ends by dehumanizing (Sonny), denying (Fredo), and alienating (Michael) its own foundation.

Yet that top-down capitalistic hierarchy, in whose face Altman continually flies, enjoys a less assailable position in Coppola’s world. It is the preeminent reality by which all individuals are defined. Throughout the Godfather films we are reminded of the close connections among the business of crime, the workings of government, and the protective role of the military. The emphasis placed on Michael’s uniform, and on the important day he enlisted in the army, speaks as much to the military’s place in the overall capitalist picture as to the impossibility of true heroic gesture in the world of The Godfather.

Save me, Don Corleone. Pull a few strings.
—Consigliere Cenco on his deathbed, The Godfather

The absence of heroes – even artificial ones – distinguishes Coppola’s world from Altman’s. Genco’s plea to Vito Corleone to save him from death illustrates the limitations of temporal power, even as it reflects human unwillingness to recognize those limitations. Instead of heroes ritualistically sacrificed to the betterment of the community, Coppola presents power gods, in whom all authority is vested and all trust placed by the mass. Unlike Altman, Coppola eschews close shots in crowd scenes. The wedding party in The Godfather is shot without close-ups, contrasting starkly with the ferocious ECUs of the intercut scenes in the Don’s office. Close-ups in Coppola’s films are reserved for the dark confessional zone where power meets morality head-on. Chiaroscuro cinematography clashes shadowy half-light with the blinding glare from windows to the outside world – a brightness that intensifies the interior dark with which it collides, while blurring the outlines of the characters themselves, who melt into light when not hidden in shadow. They become their milieu.

Were both part of the same hypocrisy, Senator. But never think that it applies to my family.
—Don Michael Corleone, The Godfather, Part II

Michael’s willful separation of himself from his family signals the collapse of family altogether – inevitable in a world where the word “family” has become a euphemism. Michael is as cool and as capable an administrator as Vito, unlike the hot-headed and impulsive Sonny. Yet Michael differs crucially from Vito: The all-consuming love and family feeling that inform Vito’s actions are paid mere lip-service by Michael. Vito’s empire is built not on money, fear, or force, but on favors. “Just remember I did you a favor” is the Don’s appeal to personal honor, whose bond builds him a vast network of loyal supporters. Vito’s approach is to Michael’s as barter is to corporate commerce. Michael, not Vito, is the herald of big business and its dehumanizing objectivity.

Michael’s rejection of his family to Kay at his sister’s wedding (“That’s my family, Kay – it’s not me”) betrays his lack of the kind of love-inspired solidarity that Vito and Sonny have in spades. For that reason, Michael’s later acts must be seen as a drive for power, his love and protection of his family a mere posture, even as Senator Geary says it is.

By being strong for his family, can he lose it?
You can never lose your family.
Times are changing.
—Conversation between Michael and Mama, The Godfather, Part II

At the end of The Godfather Michael condescends “this one time” to let Kay ask about his affairs, then lies to her. The gap between the Don and his family widens, stressed by lens distances and the repeated motif of closing doors and gates. By the end of The Godfather, Part II, Kay has become something like a good Sicilian wife, kneeling at prayer and lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness.

You can kill anyone.
—A lesson from history, The Godfather, Part II

Michael, meanwhile, in an almost Hays Code justice, ends up alone, bitter, cautious, unhappy, his “plans for my future” irrevocably altered, the ranks of friends and family decimated along with those of enemies. Yet he remains an imposing power: He owns a senator, commands the loyalty of a few good men, and has a son, to whom will pass hereditary leadership of the family, or what’s left of it – and therein lies the rub. Coppola, the individualist, in many ways the anti-Altman, stresses Michael’s lost soul and underplays the survival of his empire. And he does this not only to moralize but also to alert us to his real interest: not the achievements of power, but power itself. Coppola in the 1970s is already the man who would make Tucker, The Godfather, Part III, and Dracula.

Youre not supposed to get involved.
—Credo of a wiretap and a prostitute, The Conversation

Michael Corleone’s coolness epitomizes the suppression of emotion and personal involvement in the face of the naked brutality of power. In The Conversation, wiretap Harry Caul is as alone as Michael, but at the other end of the scale: powerless. “I don’t have any personal property,” he says, “nothing of value.” Moran calls him “Lonely and Anonymous.” He tells Meredith, the hooker, “I don’t need anyone.” Michael postures love to mask its absence; Harry boasts of professional detachment (“I don’t care what they’re talking about; I just want a nice, fat recording”) to hide the depth of his sensitivity (“I’m not afraid of death, but I am afraid of murder.”). To a huge ear, glimpsed dimly through a screen, Harry gives the confession of his life, then quickly disclaims, “But I’m not responsible…”

Concluding on the face of the evidence that he is once again an accessory to a murder he is powerless to stop, Harry hides from the act, and from his own guilt, by covering himself with blankets and turning the television up full-volume. His freedom is increasingly limited by moral compunction and the spectre of his own responsibility. He is Kurtz before the horror.

Have you ever considered that the greatest freedom is freedom from the opinions of others, and from your own opinions?
—Colonel Walter E. Kurtz

Through the transference of power from Harry Caul to his tormentors, and the transition of Harry from bugger to buggee, tool to victim, Coppola’s sympathies seem to be with him, and against the cold-blooded practitioners of power who, like Michael Corleone, survive only by emptying out the world. Yet The Conversation and The Godfather, Part II betray a growing fascination with the process whereby conventional morality, and even private morality, is totally suppressed. Coppola begins to take a certain delight in witnessing the corruption of the incorruptible, seeing the embrace of power as liberation from responsibility for men like Michael Corleone, Kurtz, and Willard. The offer is made to Harry Caul, who becomes instead an eternal victim because of his inability to renounce guilt. Michael and Willard are more willing wearers of the mantle of power. Even though the theatrical release and the redux version of Apocalypse Now no longer end, as originally planned, with Willard’s accession to Kurtz’s profane throne, both Willard and Coppola are irrevocably impressed with the denial of moral responsibility that Kurtz’s vision of freedom-as-power offers. A significant change from Conrad is Coppola’s emphasis on Kurtz’s son as the proposed recipient of his jungle reminiscences, replacing the quite different implication of Kurtz’s references to his “intended” in Heart of Darkness.

Never get out of the boat.
—What a crewman learns from a tiger, Apocalypse Now

Coppola takes a back door into the war, and uses it as metaphor and milieu, never as subject. In reiterating Conrad’s long, slow, relentless journey from the bustling center of civilization to the primitive limits of human experience, Coppola has recourse to one of the most often-remarked and psychologically shattering aspects of Vietnam: the high speed with which men were taken in and out of the war, from safety to harm’s way in minutes – almost as if “the war” were a place. “Disneyland,” Lance Johnson calls it.

At one end of Captain Willard’s mission to the primitive is a roast beef dinner, where a comically grotesque, self-important G-2 type maps out the strategy of passing food around the table, while another spills a top secret file and mutters “Shit!” At the other end is Cambodia, the arbitrary but emphatic limit to acceptable behavior (“We’re not supposed to be in Cambodia”). Cuing off the kaleidoscopic shifts from civilization to primitivism that scarred so many Vietnam veterans, from tape decks and Playboy bunnies to elemental confrontation with violence, atrocity and death, Coppola adopts a surreal approach to his subject. No titles open the film, and the first words heard are “This is the end,” a joke that signals both the apocalyptic intent and the disorientation of the film to come. A burning helicopter in a tree is not the only reminder of Herzog’s Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, another long river-trip in which the primitive swallows the civilized and reality fades into its own denial.

But Coppola employs his surrealism inconsistently. The uncompromising realism of his depiction of atrocity and violence strikes a discordant note with the farcical portrayal of the perpetrators of outrage – the cardboard Colonel Kilgore, the motley riverboat crew, the wild-eyed photojournalist, the larger-than-life Kurtz. The atrocities seem real, but the people who commit them are cartoons. It is as if Coppola – the man who wrote Patton – wants to indict atrocity, but not to assign (or accept) responsibility for it.

Don’t look at the camera! Keep moving ahead, like you’e fighting!
—A movie director, Apocalypse Now

Coppola’s cameo in Apocalypse Now as an agitated film director determined to get good footage whether anything is happening or not is a nod to the role of the news media as a controlling force in the war. But it’s also a telling metaphor: the film director as general. Coppola first seems to identify himself with Willard, who says in voice-over, “To tell his story is to tell my own, and if his is a confession, I guess mine is, too.” But Coppola is more Kurtz than Willard, and finally more Kilgore than Kurtz.

“It is judgment that defeats us,” says Kurtz. “You have the right to kill me, but not to judge me.” – Coppola to his critics? Kurtz is less like Chef’s judgment of him (“He’s worse’n crazy – he’s evil!”) than like Nietzsche, struggling to live beyond good and evil. To violate one’s own moral sensitivity out of sheer will – that is what Kurtz stands for here, a rather more explicit “horror” than Conrad was willing to present. Kurtz confronts and accepts the savage in himself, bows to the “genius” of primitive, violent willpower. “He is clear in his mind,” says the photojournalist, in a line straight from Conrad, “but his soul is mad.”

In a land and an experience from which there is never any real going back, Kurtz alone has gone all the way. For both Coppola and Conrad – but in distinctly different ways – the height of madness, and of power, is to make oneself a god. Apocalypse Now is Coppola’s most personal and stark confrontation with the question that has obsessed him all along: What dark vision makes a man abandon his moral ideals and embrace power for its own sake? The departure from customary morality – both that imposed by social norms and that dictated from within – is seen by Coppola not as a degeneration but as a liberation, freedom as unabashed flirtation with raw manipulative power – the kind of power that, at its worst, is marked by arrogance and contempt; the power once wielded by the Hollywood moguls, and was now, in the Zoetrope 1970s, wielded by Coppola’s own production system over his actors, his investors, and his public.

When Apocalypse Now first appeared, a friend remarked to me that the film’s voyage into the heart of darkness is less intense than the novel’s because Coppola, unlike Conrad, had not made that voyage in himself. I agreed then. Today I think differently: Coppola did make the voyage; but unlike Conrad he had not returned.

Copploa and Altman
Coppola and Altman


Where Robert Altman – cynical but hopeful populist who rose from television to become a new voice – insists upon the rejuvenation of the people through a ritual death signifying the redefinition and redistribution of power, Francis Ford Coppola – cynical despairing realist who rose through the studio system to become a new mogul himself – is very nearly his opposite, reasserting the solidification of power in the individual. If, in this backward glance, Altman and Coppola seem to emerge the Trotsky and Stalin of Hollywood in the 1970s, it only emphasizes, in that crucial decade, both how much and how little the business of making movies had changed.

© 2005 Robert C. Cumbow