Francis Ford Coppola
The Cross-Cutting Hyperbolist
If Woody Allen could be described as the parsimonious auteur, the filmmaker of his generation who would generally come in on budget and on time, as he made film after film that would attract a smallish but consistent audience, Francis Ford Coppola was the director as grand visionary. Sometimes this involved bringing another's vision to the screen as in The Godfather films, where his meticulous attention to detail turned an acknowledged pulp novel by Mario Puzo ("I was writing below my talents"), into a bone fide American masterpiece, into a film that managed to find in the gangster genre a theme big enough to go beyond the generic and encapsulate the problem of capitalism, family and social progress. The New York Times critic Vincent Canby may have said it was "one of the most brutal and moving chronicles of American life ever designed within the limits of popular entertainment", but its brilliance lay in moving beyond those limits. However, while it was one thing to transcend generic boundaries, what about pushing beyond the limits of one's own health and endurance? As Coppola said on Apocalypse Now, "there were times when I thought I was going to die, literally from the inability to move the problems I had. I would go to bed at four in the morning in a cold sweat."
Coppola, who was born in Detroit, Michigan, on 7 April 1939, would of course sometimes vacillate between the grand and the modest, between epic films like The Godfathermovies, Apocalypse Now and One From The Heart, and smaller works like The Rain People, The Conversation and Rumblefish, but he was probably the most visionaryfilmmaker of his generation. Now this isn't quite the same thing as being the most creative, the most original or the most personal, and Scorsese, Altman and Malick are all perhaps finally more singular artists than Coppola. But nobody seemed to want to transform cinema and culture so radically on all levels as this filmmaker whose inauspicious debut was basically a nudie flick, Tonight for Sure in 1961. In his book Coppola, Peter Cowie lists some of the director's ventures and adventures: opening a restaurant called 'Wim's' - named after Wim Wenders - running a magazine called City, and a theatre, The Little Fox. Cowie reckons "most of Coppola's fantasies involve movies and are fired by the instinct of a gambler." While most filmmakers would risk their reputations, Coppola would frequently risk his livelihood and all that entailed. During the making of Apocalypse Now, with its ever-escalating budget, the studio backing the project, UA, looked like they were going to repossess Coppola's Napa Valley vineyard and other properties.
But all this is, finally, biographical aside, and what we want to explore is the work itself. Yet sometimes the anecdotal can help bolster our instincts towards the material, and central to Coppola's oeuvre is the sense of bombast that means that we feel ambition not only in front of the screen but also behind the camera. Like Orson Welles, Coppola is a filmmaker whose flamboyant style alludes to equal flamboyance behind the lens.
Coppola for example is a great director of cross-cutting, and while this is a mainstay of cinematic tension building, the director uses it in a manner that points up the aestheticdimension over the dramatic dimension. Two examples that immediately come to mind are the cross-cut between the christening and the murders near the end of The Godfather, and the helicopter/village sequence to Wagner in Apocalypse Now. In each instance the parallel montage isn't pragmatic cinema simply telling us about two events taking place simultaneously; the montage becomes a singular decision. This is evident in critic Pauline Kael's insistence, mentioned in Eleanor Coppola's Notes, that, on hearing about the film before it was released, Coppola shouldn't use Wagner's The Ride of The Valkyries on the soundtrack. Here was a director over-reaching himself, offering an operatic moment in a war film, yet the sequence is of course absolutely consistent with The Godfather scene. In the earlier film organ music plays as Michael Corleone and his family are at a christening, whilst elsewhere in New York his murderous wishes are being carried out as Coppola cross-cuts between the two scenes, allowing the music from one to bleed into the other as we're aware that Michael has other things on his mind in the church. In Apocalypse Now, Coppola initially plays on the music which is again diegetic, again coming from within the story, as the helicopter crew blasts out Wagner on their sound system. Coppola cuts between the music from the helicopter to the quiet of the village as we see once again one world bleeding into another. Where there are many masterful examples of conventional cross-cutting in seventies cinema, where the car chase seemed to come into its own, and none more so than in The French Connection, Coppola is looking for what we could call operatic cross-cutting, a montage system based on the hyperbolizing of emotion over its realistic containment. In The French Connection we may admire director William Friedkin's work, but it remains the most conventional way of going about it. One can hardly see Kael going up to the director and asking him to do it differently. Coppola however plays with the possibility of making editing not a practical choice, but a suggestive exploration. In The Godfather we could wonder whether Michael is attentive to the christening, or thinking of his plan as it is carried out across the city, as Coppola finds a form for reflecting a man's mind being elsewhere. In Apocalypse Now, the director captures brilliantly a certain imperialist arrogance as the adrenaline buzz of Wagner in a chopper indicates an emotional rush over a job necessarily being done.
These are of course two key examples of a director imposing himself upon the work. It would be unfair to credit these sequences exclusively to Coppola, as in each instance he worked with Walter Murch, as sound designer on the first film and sound designer and editor on Apocalypse Now. Murch is a sort of philosopher of sound and in an interview, The Conversations, with the writer Michael Ondaatje, he says of his work, "If I cut the way it should be cut - according to classical film grammar - it feels kind of flatfooted...but by breaking the rules you can bring the audience into the madness that is passionate love." Murch is talking about the subjective in relation to editing, and how the conventional can sometimes leave the viewer outside the experience, when it is subjectivity the filmmaker is trying to convey. But we can perhaps talk of two levels of subjective experience here: the sort of perspective that is clearly the character's and the perspective that is the director's. Coppola's grandiose editing style in the two scenes we are talking about do capture Michael's point of view in the first instance, and the troops' perspective in Apocalypse Now, but they indicate the directorial vision also. There is a vastness of perspective here that seems consistent with the man who didn't only want to be a filmmaker, but also an entrepreneur; someone who wanted to sell wine, own theatres and restaurants, and also indeed own a studio too, Zoetrope. Perhaps it isn't necessary to know anything about Coppola's life and work when watching these ambitious sequences, but their ambition seems accentuated when we know of the behind the scenes ambitions of the filmmaker. Certainly few people watching Apocalypse Now will be unaware that it was a film several years in the making, and that Coppola almost bankrupted himself in the making of it. In interviews he more or less asked the film to be read not so much as an account of Vietnam, more as an elaborate exploration of filmmaking as nervous breakdown, of overarching ambition taken to new levels. As he would say in the documentary about its making,Hearts of Darkness, drawing analogies with Vietnam "It was crazy...we had access to too much money and too much equipment, and little by little we went insane." Gilbert Adair concurs, saying in Hollywood Vietnam "the very real sense of hopelessness that permeates the movie, the sense of things getting out of hand, of escalation, would appear to have derived as much from its own horrendous shooting conditions...as from the nature of the material itself."
It is of course always dubious drawing upon the background reports and filmmaking gossip to make sense of a film, and it is one of the troublesome aspects that makes Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls such an enjoyable but problematic read as he tackles the great films of the decade through the tangle of gossip that built up around them. However, if a filmmaker deviates from the craft and announces him or herself as an auteur, such parallels are hard to resist when the film is the sum total of our awareness of the work. Interviews, reviews, and the other films all feed into the piece under scrutiny. While other filmmakers of the decade obviously also used parallel montage inventively, including Sam Peckinpah in the opening sequence of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Hal Ashby at the end of Coming Home, and Robert Altman of course throughout Nashville, Coppola's sequences seem especially 'Coppola-esque'. Their deviation from convention arrives at the grandiloquent expression of the panoramic, and so it is not surprising if we link them to Coppola's own panoramic perspective on living. Back in 1989 he remarked that he wanted cinema to be like a combination of live TV and theatre, with all the possibilities of the film medium: "somehow, out of all these things we can create almost a new medium, and that's basically what I want to do with my life." Life and art are one and the same.
One might then ask how, though, does Coppola's sense of the panoramic in form differ from Altman's multi-character exploration in Nashville or A Wedding? We can say that it lies in Altman's interest in the milieu; Coppola's fascination with the transformation of the self that can come out of the re-arrangement of screen space. To explore this further we can look at a scene from The Godfather Part II where Coppola cross-cuts between an alfresco service on Ninth Avenue and young Don Vito Corleone establishing his reputation with a murder, the scene near the end of The Conversation where Harry realises he has failed to stop a murder being committed, and the moment shortly before the end of Apocalypse Now, with Coppola cross-cutting between Willard killing Kurtz, and a water buffalo being slaughtered. In each instance there is an operatically thematic dimension as Coppola wants the murders not only to carry a dramatic weight but a thematic heft at the same time. This is the aestheticisation of editing we invoked earlier, where scenes lend themselves not to the minutiae of the action, but the higher case exploration of basic principles of existence. When Coppola said of The Godfather Part II that generally he wanted a criss-crossing narrative pattern that would explore Don Vito's rise in the past, as it follows Michael's continuing ascension and expansion in the present, so he insisted he wanted "to show how evil reverberates over a period of generations." Coppola's cross-cutting hints at the nature of evil, not only its presence in the immediate action.
Let us look first at the scene in Coppola's Apocalypse Now. As Coppola cuts between Willard killing Kurtz, and the water buffalo being slaughtered, there are so many layers of symbolic meaning and hints at primal violence the scene as an actual diegetic event almost dissolves into its various interpretive possibilities. Is Willard killing an imperial mindset gone native, or is it a symbol of madness; is he losing his own humanity, or discovering his own innate drive? To say Willard kills Kurtz the way we might say a baddie is dispatched in the average movie is to ignore the ambition of Coppola's project. Now obviously many a film is freighted with symbolic ambitions or allusions, and even the most prosaic of works can be read on more than one level. But where most films engage the viewer on the dramatically immediate and leave the other meanings to be drawn out of the work by those interested, in much of Coppola's oeuvre the other meanings are unavoidable. When Adair mentions in Hollywood Vietnam "the sacrificial symbolism surrounding Brando's death in Apocalypse Now", even he admits, as he is drawing out Scorsese's over-representation of the slayings near the end of Taxi Driver, that it is still nothing next to Coppola's operatics. Scorsese often wants an allusive dimension but it must come out of the intensification of the dramatic. Scorsese's primal figures of aggression, like Travis Bickle and Jake La Motta, are presented primally not by parallel montage but by the horror of the given moment. When Scorsese cuts between Bickle and the people about to be killed in Taxi Driver, or between La Motta and his brother in Raging Bull when La Motta goes and attacks him for believing he has slept with his wife, this isn't operatic thematics; more the laying out of space for dramatic through-lines. It is evident that Bickle functions like a biblical exterminating angel, and Raging Bull ends with a quote from Corinthians, suggesting the film has been about more than La Motta; but this latter quotation sums up the work - it doesn't over-determine it. In Apocalypse Now Coppola keeps the scene vague on a realist/dramatic level and vivid on a symbolic/ primal one. As we have no dramatic interest in the water buffalo being slaughtered, it cannot serve but as a function beyond the literal.
In The Godfather Part II, the literal and the symbolic are more integrated, and as Peter Cowie and others have noted, the scene echoes the one in The Godfather we've quoted above, but again it goes beyond narrative exigencies to incorporate categorical symbolic significance. Here Don Vito carries out a hit and we cross-cut between Don Vito and his victim. Initially this is dramatically necessary as we are given a clear sense of where Don Vito is in relation to the man he will kill. Basically Don Vito enters the man's house through the window after walking along the rooftops, while the victim walks along the road. But when the victim enters the building Coppola still shows us scenes of the religious ceremony as if to point up the gap between Don Vito's action and the religious ritual taking place outside. Once again we see Coppola over-determining the scene, and we don't especially mean this pejoratively (it is brilliantly done), but to understand Coppola's scope and ambition.
The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now are however operatic works, and indeed Cowie astutely notes the kinships with Bernardo Bertolucci, a filmmaker who also in a number of his films, including The Spider's Stratagem and La Luna, draws on opera to give his work not so much thematic underpinning, but thematic exaggeration, and whose cameraman Coppola would go on to use, Vittorio Storaro. An underpinning indicates sub-text; Coppola, like Bertolucci if in a quite different way, is more interested as we've suggested in symbolic superimposition, in pushing scenes so that they become unavoidably more than textually pertinent. Whether that would be by cutting out the narratively extraneous footage in The Godfather Part II, or giving a greater context to the water buffalo slaughter scene in Apocalypse Now, the thematic would be underpinned, not 'overstated', and thus pertinent to the immediate scene and not necessarily beyond it.
This overstatement is even present in the cross-cutting in what is usually seen as one of Coppola's most subdued works, The Conversation. At the beginning of the film the cross-cutting stays well within the realm of verisimilitude and narrative detail, as we witness a couple in a San Francisco park and sound man Harry Caul's attempt to record them. However late in the film we see Harry at a press conference where the young couple whom he taped at the beginning of the film are being interviewed over the murder of the woman's husband. At the same time Coppola flashes back to various moments in the film as Harry realizes how he has been misled, and the director once again goes for the maximum amount of overstatement. Most of the information he has already given us, or could have given us, within the context of the specific earlier scene itself, but here he wants to maximise the vertiginous sense that Harry is a man who, for all his surveillance skills, has been deeply mistaken. He believed the couple were under threat; actually it was the couple who planned to murder the husband. Harry proves like Michael and Willard to be another man with a conscience, or at least capable of a lateral crisis of conscience as Coppola doesn't quite give us Harry's point of view, but creates an editing scheme that brings out a hyperbolized sense of guilt towards events.
It is the case that many filmmakers of the seventies seemed to want to open their films up to the problems of society, rather than contain them within the demands of genre, but perhaps no filmmaker more than Coppola wanted to make (over) statements about society and mankind. Whether it happened to be the nature of capitalism and family in The Godfather, the problem of privacy in The Conversation, or the primal chaos in Apocalypse Now, Coppola was always a filmmaker willing to bite off more than he could chew as he seemed the most epic of the Movie Brats. Whether we choose to see this sense of the epic in Coppola's manifold business interests, in his capacity to go over budget and destroy his own studio as he would eventually do with One From the Heart as it bankrupted Zoetrope, or through his ambitious overstated sense of editing structure, Coppola was undeniably a man to be reckoned with. What happened to that ambition and energy, that formal innovation and psychological ambition, is another issue. In the seventies we may note that Coppola nicely book-ended the decade. At the beginning of it with The Godfather he had a success so great that it gave many another young filmmaker the chance to make studio films with a personal style, and at the end of it with Apocalypse Now made an expensive, precariously successful work. It was a film that aptly symbolized the end of an era as directors like Cimino with Heaven's Gate, Altman with Popeye and, a little earlier, Scorsese with New York, New York, indicated with big-budget films which lost the studios money that both creative and artistic freedom was coming to an end.
© Tony McKibbin