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 26, October 1973]
Kid Blue, completed more than a year ago, enjoyed a belated and unsuccessful release and arrived in the Jet City even later. Reportedly Twentieth Century Fox advertised the picture as a straight western somewhere in the country and failed to find an audience for it (whatever audience they did reach with such a pitch would surely have been grievously disappointed). The film and the rest of the nation will have a second chance to get together after a New York Film Festival showcasing offers a proper reintroduction. Meanwhile, the Harvard Exit has scored another audience coup—not so spectacular as with such earlier previously-ignored-elsewhere pix as TheConformist, TakingOff, and The Emigrants, but not bad at all. Unfortunately the sizable weeknight audience I saw the film with tended to turn on at just those places where the filmmakers lost either perspective or their artistic souls.
The American Friend (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” Dennis Hopper’s Tom Ripley is nothing like the character that Patricia Highsmith created and explored in five novels, and while Wim Wenders’s adaptation of Ripley’s Game, the sequel to The Talented Mr. Ripley, remains more or less faithful to the plot (with additional elements appropriated from Ripley Underground), the personality and sensibility belong to Wenders.
The cool, cunning sociopath of Highsmith’s novel becomes a restless international hustler, selling art forgeries and brokering deals (some of which may actually be legal) while travelling back and forth through Germany, France, and the United States. His target, renamed Jonathan Zimmerman here (a Dylan reference? Wenders loves his American music, you know) and played with an easy (if at times arrogant) integrity by Bruno Ganz, is a German art restorer who now runs a frame shop due to the effects of a fatal blood disease. In true Highsmith fashion, the motivation is purely psychological and emotional—a small but purposeful social slight—and the reverberations are immense. Ripley concocts a medical con to convince Zimmerman he’s dying so a French associate (played by Gerard Blain) can tempt him to be his assassin, and then comes to his rescue as the French criminal extends the cruel little act of revenge to pull Zimmerman into additional murders.
Roger Corman is the world champion of cinematic recycling. Why waste the potential of a set on a single film when there’s a hungry young aspiring director ready to cobble together a second feature and shoot on the set in the days (and nights) before it’s torn down? A couple of good films (and a whole lot of B-movie fodder features) were created because Corman played every angle of an asset, whether if be a particularly lavish set, a couple of days left on an actor’s contract or an expensive stunt sequence that surely could be reused in another feature or three.
One of his favorite tricks was to buy up the rights to science fiction films from behind the Iron Curtain and have movies built around the special effects and/or action sequences. Two of these productions recently came out on the MGM Limited Edition Collection, one of the more robust MOD (manufacture on demand) lines currently pouring out its catalogue.
Queen of Blood (1966), directed by Curtis Harrington, is arguably the best of the Corman-produced recycling jobs and as fun a haunted spaceship film as there was until Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires. The special effects and alien ship came from a pair of big budget Soviet productions that Corman bought simply to cannibalize, notably Nebo zozyot (which a young Francis Ford Coppola previously turned into Battle Beyond the Sun, 1962, for Corman), and the plot reworks It! The Terror From Beyond Space (which provided the premise for Alien as well), with a green-skinned blood-sucking siren (Florence Marley) subbing for the marauding lizard of It! John Saxon, in All-American hero mode, is the leader of the three-person space mission that finds the ship floating in space and Judi Meredith and Dennis Hopper fill out the crew.
Harrington, who came to genre filmmaking via avant-garde films (including collaborations with Kenneth Anger) and the wonderfully spooky Night Tide, a mix of horror, fantasy, character study and mood piece, creates his own film out of these elements, which he shot in a brisk ten days. The delicious imagery of the Soviet films, from the eerie planetscapes to the dreamy shots of ships in space to the delirious color-drenched interiors of the derelict alien ship, give the film a sense of scale and detail that Corman couldn’t hope to provide. The American side of the production tends to skimp on the American spaceship and space station sets. Basil Rathbone delivers his role seated at a minimalist control center that makes the Star Trek TV bridge look absolutely epic, ordering the astronauts via microphone (no view screens in this budget) to keep this specimen alive at all costs.
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
September 30, 1976
Could you tell me what Kings of the Roadis about and how you came to make it?
It’s a film about two men and they’re making a journey across, along the border of East Germany from the North to the South, which is about a thousand miles, in an old truck, and they are repairing the projection equipment in the small villages.
How did you choose the subject?
Well, that’s not an easy answer. There are different subjects in the film. It’s not only the journey of the two men, but it’s also the situation of cinema, small cinemas in Germany that are dying out. It’s a little bit about the end of cinema altogether. It’s about the situation of men who are 30 now, born after the war like me. It’s about Germany nowadays. It’s about a lot of things. It’s about music and it’s about rock’n’roll just as well as about cinema.
There’s quite a lot of rock’n’roll on the soundtrack. How did you pick what you used?
I picked some favorite things.
There’s a profound feeling of alienation in the film, emphasized by Bruno’s scream at the end. Are you trying to make any larger statement about men as a group being alienated, or do you limit this sense of alienation to these two men? .
It’s more or less Tarzan’s scream. Well, it’s not only the alienation of these two because in the film … As soon as you pick somebody as the hero of a film, it turns out to be statement, not only about him but about mankind. So it is, rather, a film about men than about these two men. In a way, it’s a film about men totally in an American tradition—the road movie tradition—but on the other hand, it’s just the opposite of all these films because it’s not dealing with men the way all these films used to deal. It’s not reassuring them. On the contrary.
[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.