Sunday, 21 December 2014

Francis Ford Coppola - Part Three


A personal ranking of his greatest films


11. Dementia 13 [1963]


Image: A family facing death.  The unity of "the family" (pre-Mafia) and the spectre of death that comes between them.

For directors that don't find an audience until two or three features in their career (sometimes more than that), the critical reaction is often to reduce those early films to the level of vague curiosities; strange artefacts denied the right to ever be approached as legitimate films without comparison to the work that eventually followed.  How often is Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967) acknowledged as the first Scorsese?  The Delinquents (1957) as the first Altman?  Loving Memory (1971) as the first Tony Scott?  Hardly ever, if even at all.  The positive attributes of these movies - ignored at the time as the work of any other anonymous first-time "auteur" unworthy of attention or acclaim - are dwarfed by the success of later films, such as Mean Streets (1973), MASH (1970) and Top Gun (1986), where the cultural identity of the individual director was now apparent and fully formed.  The tragedy of this is that most first-features provide a skeleton key to unlocking the various secrets of a filmmaker's subsequent work; contextualising not just those films that were able to break through the barriers of popular culture and the vagaries of public taste, but also the perceived failures; the films that flew too close to the sun and as such were denigrated and defamed by critics for an assortment of subjective rationale.

To use a more recent example, the current ideological approach to the films of M. Night Shyamalan is to view each new film as a kind of competitive sequel to The Sixth Sense (1999).  Audiences go into these films looking for something that plays to the conventions of a recognisable genre (there, the supernatural mystery) when it would be far more beneficial to see the work as a continuation of the same semi-autobiographical thread that was forged in his very first feature, Praying with Anger (1992); a naive "confessional" in which the young filmmaker exposed his deepest passions and fears, while at the same time creating a drama that was rich in sensitivity, pathos and wit.  A film where the influence of the supernatural was both cultural and spiritual, and not just there to placate classifications of genre.  The same is true of a film like Dementia 13; a beautifully shot gothic horror story that works to the influences of Clouzot's Les diaboliques (1955) and Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), while also introducing several themes (such as the thread of familial dysfunction, as well as the line between passion and insanity) that would continue throughout the director's subsequent work.  For instance, here the struggle of three brothers against the experiences and expectations of a woman from the outside initiated into this strange domestic unit provides a blueprint for the filmmaker's era-defining landmark The Godfather (1972), while the generally macabre atmosphere and the film's fevered stylisations would in turn infiltrate the subject-matter and approach of both Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and Twixt (2011) respectively.

While frequently dismissed as little more than cheap schlock - especially in light of Coppola's later acclaim - Dementia 13 is no less a "complete" film and an entirely compelling one.  The gothic ambiance is stylish and otherworldly, the story is interesting and genuinely engaging, while the psychology of the mysterious killer is well developed and fascinating in its inevitable revelation.  More so, the film is significant (in my view, at least) as a precursor to the sub-genre of Italian murder mysteries known internationally as the "giallo" (or "gialli", as plural).  For many critics, the first acknowledged giallo was Mario Bava's excellent Hitchcockian thriller, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963).  However, with its flashbacks to a tragic event as expressive of the killer's tortured psyche, as well as the more conventional presentation of women in peril and characters who seem compelled to become amateur sleuths in an effort to solve the crime, so much of Dementia 13 seems to set a template for the later films of Dario Argento, such as Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), and his masterworks Deep Red (1975) and Tenebrae (1982).  While less refined or as technically grandstanding as Argento's classics, Dementia 13 is no less a remarkable achievement from the very young Coppola; a film that succeeds as a visually captivating and often chilling murder mystery, but also provides a much needed element of psychological depth.

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12. The Rain People [1969]


Image: The characters divided; unable, physically and metaphorically, to connect.

Coppola's return to low-budget independent filmmaking following his Hollywood excursion with the flawed and forgettable Finian's Rainbow (1968) is a stripped back, minimalist character study that seems to anticipate a certain kind of movie that would become more popular during the ensuing decade.  Shades of everything from Five Easy Pieces (1970) to Bleak Moments (1971) to The Sugarland Express (1974) to Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) to Blue Collar (1978) can be found in the film's unflinching observation of tortured, inarticulate characters at war with themselves and those closest to them.  It's that same spirit of disenchantment that propelled a film like Easy Rider (1969) to investigate the broken heart of the American dream from the perspective of those most burned by the disappointment of its empty promises.  But while Easy Rider was a film looking out at a country lost and delirious, Coppola's characters are trapped by their own circumstances; bound by their bodies and their limitations and their relationships; the personal and private struggle(s) becoming less of a commentary on the state of the country in the final throes of the turbulent '60s than a personification of it.

It's a film I haven't seen in many years - first discovering it at around the age of fourteen and being surprised because (in those pre-IMDb days) I'd mistakenly assumed The Godfather (1972) was Coppola's debut - but the sense of bitterness, the conflict and the discontent that eats away at these characters and pushes the drama towards an accumulative air of hopeless desperation has stayed with me, even if many of the broader or more central elements of the plot have long since faded from view.  I remember my initial disappointment that the film wasn't shot in that hallucinatory, illusory Coppola style (made familiar through his subsequent work on Apocalypse Now, Rumble Fish and Dracula; all personal favourites at the time), but on reflection I came to see its fragile, withdrawn, subtle and naturalistic approach as a precursor to that of the filmmaker's later masterpiece, The Conversation (1974).  There as well as here, Coppola evokes a feeling of characters too brittle and self-conscious to survive in a world so harsh and impersonal; the sense of drama resulting less from their natural human instinct to connect than their inability to reach out, to find a happiness in the embrace of someone else.

In re-watching short clips of the film in preparation for this post, I was reminded of so many things that impressed me when seeing the film at a younger age.  The vulnerability of the central character - her proto-"feminist" search for identity; to find a place of her own - is hugely compelling, in part because of Coppola's unsung talent as a dramatist, capable of translating complex thoughts and emotions into images and scenes, but also because the character is brought to life so vividly and sympathetically by the actress Shirley Knight that her journey - emotional as well as geographical - connects to whatever feelings of disappointment or frustration that might be carried by the viewing audience.  Here, the experience of the film and the perspective of its central characters is beautifully defined by its poetic and evocative title.  The Rain People (as opposed to "the sunshine people") because these are characters battered beneath a black cloud, forever grey and dismal; but also in the sense that these are characters, like the rain, somewhat intangible or elusive; there one minute, gone the next.  As characters, they become like the drips and puddles left behind in the wake of a torrential storm; the only physical reminders of an all too brief yet tumultuous existence.

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13. Peggy Sue Got Married [1986]


Image: Peggy Sue Through the Looking-Glass.  A vision, trapped between dream and memory.

Besides the contentious Jack (1996) - a film that even I dislike! - the wistful and innocent fantasy of Peggy Sue Got Married seems perhaps the most vehemently dismissed and debated of all Coppola's films from that difficult period, roughly 1984 to 1997, wherein the filmmaker worked simply to pay off his debts.  While subsequent efforts like Gardens of Stone (1987) and Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) are largely ignored or passed over - with the no less controversial The Godfather: Part III (1990) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) appealing mostly to their respective cults - the film in question is too often seen as a vague triviality; a trifle unworthy of Coppola's greater stature.  I think this is unfair, since the film is genuinely entertaining and enlivened by Coppola's always interesting stylistic experiments and his very genuine engagement with the predicament of the central character.  While it would have been very easy for Coppola to play the film as tongue in cheek - presenting its nostalgic view of the 1960s as an "aww shucks!" time capsule, where everything is fine and dandy - the screenwriters, Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner, instead make the character of Peggy Sue self-aware enough that she is able to recognise (with the hindsight of an adult-life) the real concerns and calamities that - in our formative years - dictate the type of person we eventually become.

In contrast to a more successful film, like Back to the Future (1985) by Robert Zemeckis, where the reconstruction of the 1950s seemed like a pastiche of an old TV sitcom (with only a few jarring incongruities used to provide ironic laughs), the façade of late '50s/early '60s Americana is here transformed by the central character's ability to see through the lies and promises that her teenage-self once blindly accepted to be the foundations for a successful, well adjusted life.  As a result, there are genuine pangs of both sadness and regret that weave their way through the romantic comic-fantasy; where the anxieties, disillusionment and disappointment of the middle-aged Peggy Sue is projected onto her surroundings, exposing the youthful idyll for what it really is.  In this regard, the film is operating on two separate levels.  On one, it presents itself as a conventional fantasy, in which the character is genuinely transported back through time in order to glean some greater understanding that will work to alter the course of her more fruitless existence in the present-day (creating a modern parallel to both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz), while on the other level presenting an appropriation of the past as an extended psychodrama; where everything that happens on screen is essentially confined to the parameters of the character's own unconscious mind.

The audience is free to create their own interpretation, however, for me, it's the opening shot of the film that makes obvious the intentions of the filmmaker and his immense love for the illusory aspect of cinema, and in particular its ability to transport the viewer, emotionally, geographically, or in this instance, through time!  Rather than depict the central character gazing into a mirror as one might conventionally approach it, Coppola looks back to the pure artifice of his earlier One from the Heart (1982) and composes a very obvious trick shot, in which the actress, Kathleen Turner as the titular Peggy Sue, faces the camera in a cut-out mirror façade, while a body-double with a similarly coiffed wig sits with their back to the camera, mimicking the actions of the star.  The effect is immediately obvious as the actions do not synch up, but this seems intentional, as Coppola draws the attention of the audience to the idea of pretence and imitation; where the presentation of a "magic mirror", able to depict not a reflection but a projection, becomes a shorthand for the cinema itself.  This self-reflexivity gives the film an added dimension, as its later scenes of the middle-aged Turner playing her own teenage counterpart becomes an obvious "performance", in the theatrical sense, albeit one that carries the same sensitivity and weight of actual feminist sentiment as Coppola's own fragile and reflective drama, The Rain People (1969).

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14. You're a Big Boy Now [1966]


Image: The woman objectified, displayed.  More a symbol than a character.  A personification of the movement itself.

The first scene - the first image, in fact - takes place in a cavernous study hall.  The austerity of the setting, the lack of colour, already communicates the obvious; this is a place of routines, conformity; the inertia of academia, writ large!  As the camera pushes in - moving with a rigid Kubrickian determination along a central corridor created by endless rows of desks - the audience is compelled to observe a student body incapacitated behind text books; the occasional cough and restless shuffling of bodies becoming their only conceivable protest against the stifling silence of the space.  Regardless, the camera continues its journey.  When it reaches the double doors at the far end of the room it stops, and in time with the first reverberating guitar chord of 'Girl, Beautiful Girl' by The Lovin' Spoonful, the doors erupt with a burst of colour, sexuality and astonishing rock n' roll energy.  Here, a gorgeous young waif in a bright yellow mini-dress struts confidently down the allies between tables, as the sound of swingin' pop invades the soundtrack.  This woman - this vision, radiant, resplendent - looks like she's stepped off the pages of a high-end fashion magazine, as chic, modern and fashionable as the image itself.  It's a total counterpoint to the asceticism of the location; to these kids with their faces buried in books.  In a single moment, Coppola has shaken the very foundations of the establishment.

The visual metaphor - this symbol of conservative middle-America; the university as bastion of the new status quo electrified into consciousness by a new (European) sensibility - is also a prelude to the plot in miniature; the seduction of the audience as precursor to the seduction of the central character.  In addition, the sequence is also a commentary on the state of American cinema, as a kind of self-aware critique.  In the image of this study hall - which, in presentation, is more like a museum; a place where dead objects are laid out as a reminder of a life no longer lived - Coppola is personifying the contemporary America cinema as a place numbed into a sedate oblivion.  The woman, with her confident attitude, high style and air of exotic inaccessibility, is like the invading cinema of Antonioni, Fellini, Bertolucci, Godard, etc.  In pursuit of this character, the protagonist becomes a mirror to Coppola himself, whose early passion for American theatre was energised by his discovery of these comparatively more daring, exciting and provocative filmmakers emerging from France, Italy and Japan.

In attempting to meld the conventions of the traditional all-American love story with the foundations of the then-contemporary European "art-cinema" movement, Coppola is once again showing himself to be an innovator.  While Dementia 13 (1963) can be seen as a prototype of the Italian "giallo" - its blondes in peril, amateur sleuths, sympathetic killer and flashbacks to a tragic event informing everything from Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) to Deep Red (1975) - and The Rain People (1969) created the foundation for a decade's worth of penetrating, intimate or observational character dramas, like Five Easy Pieces (1970), Two-Lane Black Top (1971) and Scarecrow (1973), the film in question finds Coppola uniting an American tale of boy meets girl with a cool and stylish European surface a full year before the greater success of landmark "new Hollywood" movies Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Graduate (also '67).  However, what defines the work more than its unsung position as precursor to the counter-culture renaissance of American film, is its sense of vivacity and colour.  The film is a tremendous joy throughout, capturing in its simple tale the escapism and creative freedom that one associates with both the spirit of youth and the pop cinema of the 1960s, but with a biting undercurrent implicit in the filmmaker's questioning of the tangibility of these impossible dreams against the all too reassuring (and achievable) reality.

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15. Dracula [1992]


Image: The Count returning from battle; already haunted by his lost Elisabeta.

On the surface, this is a problematic film.  Problematic in the sense that its tonality is inconsistent.  The performances range from the wooden to the histrionic.  The dialogue is frequently clumsy, the delivery even worse; a combination of stilted English affectation and garbled Eastern European hilarity.  The pacing is rushed; scenes blurring into one another, stumbling between moments, fighting for attention.  The entire thing becomes more like a confused reverie than something that takes its time to breathe, to settle; to allow the audience to savour the atmosphere that Coppola so vividly creates, the imagery that he so meticulously evokes.  And yet it's a film that remains entirely fascinating, thrilling and often quite affecting.  This is the reckless and hallucinatory Coppola of films like Apocalypse Now (1979), One from the Heart (1982) and Rumble Fish (1983) let loose on a story that is rich in imagination, magical realism and an air of the fantastique.  A story that allows its author to unleash an arsenal of filmmaking techniques, trick shots and expressive stylisations, to create a feeling of the supernatural unleashing its influence across every aspect of the film.

To find an emotional centre to anchor this explosion of theatrical decadence and flamboyant mise-en-scène, Coppola and his collaborators approach the film, not as a more conventional horror movie (although the lashings of violence and the hideous creature effects play well to the requirements of the genre), but as a romantic melodrama.  Here, the intensity of the imagery and the violence of its sexuality are each intended to express the psychological wounds of the central character, destroyed and turned monstrous by the loss of his greatest love.  In this conception, the obsessive courtship between the mysterious Count Dracula and the English belle Mina Murray becomes an attempt by the antagonist to reclaim, in part (from the image of Mina), the memory of his lost Elisabeta.  From this, the film is something of a precursor to the director's later work, Youth Without You (2007), in which another aging European cheats death by becoming young again, and finds in his courtship with an enigmatic woman of inexplicable origin a reminder of a long lost love.  In Dracula, it is this loss that drives the film, defined as it is by an amazing prologue, in which the Count, returning from battle to find the aftermath of Elisabeta's betrayal as pitiless suicide, rejects Christ and turns to darker, more elemental forces, which consign him to a living death (his ensuing pursuit of Mina, as such, becoming more a chance at redemption than another insidious or supernatural possession).

Ultimately the film is more successful as a meditation on obsessive or undying love - or the idea of lovers finding a reflection of one another through the ages; see also Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) - than as a faithful adaptation of the Bram Stoker text; but there are additional ideas here that are equally compelling, and in a large way recompense some of the film's more glaring weaknesses.  For instance, one of the more interesting innovations of the film (and one not often brought up in discussion) is the way Coppola equates the arrival of Dracula with the various advances in late nineteenth century technology; the cinema included.  Through this, Coppola and his screenwriter James V. Hart posit the idea of Dracula as somehow representative of these greater changes (which would - in the course of time - usher in new and exciting ways of looking at medicine, psychology, travel, art, religion, anthropology, sexuality, etc).  If the influence of these greater changes would impact on the development of the twentieth century then the depravity and carnality of the Dracula character likewise work to infect and eventually destroy the puritanical, deeply superstitious Victorian society of the film's setting, thus making possible the more progressive attitudes of the subsequent age.