Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #9 - Francis Ford Coppola

Created by Rita Molnár 2001. Cropped by User:Before My Ken 02/02/2009

-The Godfather
-The Godfather part II
-Apocalypse Now
-Bram Stoker's Dracula

-The Godfather part III
-The Outsiders


Let's not kid ourselves.  The main reason that Francis Ford Coppola is on this list is because of The Godfather.  The first time I ever watched The Godfather I hated it.  My mom had me watch it when I was 7.  I thought it was long, boring, and pointless.  For various reasons I ended up watching it a few more times over the years.  My reaction to it went from "It's not as bad as I remember," to "It's okay," to "Huh, it's actually pretty good," to "Wow!  This movie is amazing!"

In terms of directing, I am so horribly impressed by Coppola's complete confidence.  There really is nothing flashy in The Godfather.  There are no super-funky camera manipulations that show off his creativity as a director.  Instead Coppola trusts the power of his visuals and the strength of his storytelling skills to carry the audiences attention.

Look at that opening scene.  It starts with a close on Bonasera in a dark room.  We have no idea where he is or who he is talking to.  For over a minute, the camera slowly pulls back to reveal his environment as he continues his story.  It  moves along at a snails pace.  There is not big explosion or gunfire.  Instead, Coppola knows that the simple act use of his camera slowly revealing the setting will serve only intrigue the audience.  It draws them in: who is he talking to?  Why?

Coppola also trusts the intelligence of his audience.  Clemenza tells Michael to come out of the bathroom shooting.  When Michael doesn't, Coppola doesn't punctuate it with a recall to Clemenza words or a close up of the gun.  Instead, Michael simple exits.  Most people I talk to who have seen it say that they had the same reaction, "Why isn't he shooting?"  They get drawn into the story.  And then camera hangs on Michael making his decision, expertly adding the sound of the train to rathet up the tension.

Someone once said that Coppola is one of the most Catholic filmmakers out there.  He did not mean that he was particularly religious.  What he meant was that the influence of Catholic culture, with its emphasis on symbolism and ritual, affects how Coppola tells a story.  This is very evident in the infamous Baptism scene.  How beautifully symbolic of a man losing his soul by lying to God about his faithfulness while ordering the murder of several others.

And yet Coppola also does something pretty incredible as a director: he makes you care about horrible people.  Michael turns into a monster, but we can't help but root for him.  Vito is a thug, but we want him to pull through.  Despite the horrible things they do, we still love them like family.  But Coppola never lets us forget that what they do is horrible.  The audience feels that as they identify with Kate being shut out in the final moments.

But where The Godfather was confident in its subtlety, Bram Stoker's Dracula is bold in its wild visuals.  In many ways it is the opposite of The Godfather in style.  For this, it feels like Coppola through every directing trick at the movie, including the kitchen sink.   And to be sure there are some parts of it that don't work out like the needless nudity and sex, as well as some of the stop-motion animation.  But instead of it being a craptastic mess, it is actually dazzling and a bit hypnotic.  I couldn't take my eyes off the screen (except during the needless nudity and sex, of course).  He also coaxes two amazing over-the-top performances from the great Gary Oldman and Sir Anthony Hopkins.

And then there is Apocalypse Now.  I have very little to say about it, except it is a movie that will so effectively fill you with existential emptiness that you will feel like Kurtz and whisper "The horror, the horror."  That is not to say it is a bad movie by any means.  That is what Coppola sets out to do and he does it incredibly well.  You actually feel the dark side of humanity so vividly.  The great film critic John Nolte once theorized that Martin Sheen's Willard actually commits suicide during that scene in the beginning of the film and so his journey through the movie is a literal, not figurative, decent into hell.  I can't say I disagree.

Francis Ford Coppola has not made a great movie in years.  But that does not diminish his accomplishments to cinema that cannot be rivaled.

No comments:

Post a Comment