[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), October 30, 1979]
Cinema comes so naturally to some filmmakers. Bernardo Bertolucci once revealed that he dreamed camera movements years before laying hands on a camera. But even without this confessional nudge, his aptitude for the medium, his kinesthetic thrall with luminosity, surfaces, colors, trajectories, is apparent in the films he has made. Opera has been a frequent touchstone in his work, existentially and aesthetically, but he doesn’t need it as a brief for grandiosity or vividness of style: it is as natural for Bertolucci to soar as it is for others to walk.
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.