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Francis Ford Coppola 1933–
American director, producer, and scriptwriter.
Along with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, among others, Coppola established the reputation of the textbook filmmakers. He is also a producer and the head of Omni Zoetrope (formerly American Zoetrope), a studio he started in 1969 to help young filmmakers produce their work.
Trained in film at the University of California at Los Angeles, Coppola worked with Roger Corman as an assistant director and writer. Corman offered him his first opportunity to direct on Dementia 13. But Dementia 13 was not well received and his next film, You're a Big Boy Now, was overshadowed by Mike Nichols's The Graduate, released at the same time as Coppola's film. In retrospect, many critics find You're a Big Boy Now a fresh, zany look at the disillusionment and the joys of growing up.
In 1968, Coppola directed his first—and perhaps his last—musical. His version of Finian's Rainbow was released, amidst a barrage of negative reviews. All during production, Coppola was plagued by the problems of an inexperienced filmmaker attempting to create a large-scale musical. Warner Brothers, however, dealt the death blow. The studio, sure of the film's success, expanded the 35mm print to 70mm to give it the aura of a grandiose musical. In the process, however, Fred Astaire's feet were cut off the bottom of the screen. When his next film, The Rain People, received a lukewarm critical reception, Coppola's future looked questionable.
The brilliant success of Coppola's adaptation of Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather established Coppola in the film world. While Part I was in production, Coppola fought for three things: Marlon Brando for the part of Don Corleone, Al Pacino for the part of Michael Corleone, and the adaptation of the film as a period piece rather than setting it in the present. Because of these aspects of the film, among others, Coppola transformed what some considered a strictly sensational novel into an epic of family loyalty within the world of organized crime.
Coppola's most recent project, Apocalypse Now, has become as notorious as it is famous. Stories of the difficulties of production and the skyrocketing costs have given the film an aura of unbridled extravagance. For many critics, this has detracted from the film and jaded their perception of it. In The Movie Brats Michael Pye and Lynda Myles have said of Coppola: "[There is] a fatal flaw that eats at Coppola's filmmaking. He makes appropriate noises to hearten his liberal constituency … and then concentrates on performance, style, and rhythm. His skills do not present the message he says he intends." The critical response to Apocalypse Now echoes this view. Most critics find it lush, overwhelmingly beautiful, spectacular … and empty. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
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The horror story is heavily red-herringed and none too credible, and [The Haunted and the Hunted, or Dementia 13] doesn't escape looking a bit of a quickie. But the director, Francis Coppola, has confidently assembled the film and given it a sharp sense of atmosphere. It lacks polish but its ideas are right.
Allen Eyles, "The New Films: 'The Haunted and the Hunted'" (© copyright Allen Eyles 1965; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 11, No. 6, March, 1965, p. 35.
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[In You're a Big Boy Now] Coppola shows a fine feeling for New York's grimy excitement, especially in a sequence in which his young hero peeps in and out of porny book stores and amusement parlors on 42nd Street; the cinéma-vérité casualness, bouncy editing, and Lovin' Spoonful music nicely render the city's exuberance without skimming its sordidness. The story, what little there is, concerns a boy's effort to break the complicated parental bonds (his ambivalent feelings toward his father are suggested by his chronic inability to decide what to call him) and discover sex. It is not the freshest idea in the world, but Coppola has enlivened it with amusing details…. Coppola's invention and energy run down about halfway through the movie, and he tries to recover with an arch, frantic slapstick chase. (The rediscovery of Mack Sennett has been one of the most disastrous influences on comedy of the last few years.) In addition, most of the movie, even the funny parts, looks cute rather than true; Coppola seems to have had a good time making it without being really committed to it. There are a few scenes which are much more urgent—those with a tough and vicious dancer named Barbara Darling, especially a brilliant discotheque scene whose psychedelic light effects exaggerate Barbara's body movements to gargantuan, overpowering twitches, and a chilling seduction scene in which she arouses the hero almost to orgasm and then crawls into bed and tells him to go away. In these scenes Coppola makes the aphrodisiac function of rock music clearer than ever, and he creates a truly intense, only superficially comic mood of sexual nightmare that, unlike the rest of the movie, cannot be dismissed as merely larky. These moments are enough to confirm that Coppola is a director worth watching….
Stephen Farber, "Entertainments: 'You're a Big Boy Now'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1967 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XX, No. 4, Summer, 1967, p. 80.
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There is something awfully depressing about seeing "Finian's Rainbow" this year this way….
It is not just that the musical is dated. Something lovely and nostalgic could have been made out of old Missitucky for the generation that grew up on "Finian's Rainbow" and "Brigadoon." It is that it has been done listlessly and even tastelessly, with quick updatings of Negro personalities to match what people who have lived in Beverly Hills too long must imagine modern black sensibilities are. The cast is full of children who act as artificially and insincerely as the whole enterprise, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, would suggest….
[The whole story] has just gone dim, as though nobody had troubled with it—hoping only to sell it to television as a family musical and get it over with.
Renata Adler, "'Finian's Rainbow'," in The New York Times (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 10, 1968, p. 59.
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Anyone who refused to abandon himself to the pleasure pure and simple of such films as French Cancan or Silk Stockings had better give Finian's Rainbow … a miss. Like Renoir with his rosily moonlit Butte de Montmartre, or Mamoulian with his Paris which loves lovers, Francis Ford Coppola has created a dream world, half-fact, half-fantasy, and all enchantment: a rural paradise reached by way of the Brooklyn Bridge, Mount Rushmore and the Mississippi riverboats, but unquestionably at the end of the rainbow in a never-never America where true love and simple faith conquer all obstacles.
Schmaltz?… [The] point is that Finian's Rainbow is all of a piece, and like all the best musicals, transmits its feelings not by words or even deeds, but by movement. And the movement of the film is pure exhilaration, without trace of schmaltz or whimsy….
Movement, in fact, is quintessential to Finian's Rainbow (which is as it should be), not only in the musical numbers but in the whole structure of the film. Somehow Coppola manages to give the impression that his characters are not merely involved by ones, twos and threes in individual songs and dances, but are all caught up in one vast, informal musical number which is the film itself. His secret seems to lie partly in the way he choreographs the action beyond the limits of the frame, and partly in the impeccable rhythms of his curiously fragmented technique. (p. 43)
[There is] effortless choreographic flow and overall rhythm that hasn't been seen in the cinema since Summer Holiday and Silk Stockings—and allows one to hope that Coppola can and will take over the Mamoulian mantle….
Finian's Rainbow is a stunning piece of cinema. I loved every minute of it. (p. 44)
Tom Milne, "Film Reviews: 'Finian's Rainbow'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1968 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 38, No. 1, Winter, 1968–69, pp. 43-4.
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[It] cannot be quite coincidental that The Rain People … concerns a journey across America…. This film, like Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, certainly depends for part of its meaning on American myths of freedom on the open road, our traditional belief in the journey away from civilization as a source of refreshment and renewal. The very first traveling shot of the countryside has an exhilarating sweep and romanticism; the land itself tempts us to believe that Natalie will find on her journey the insight into herself that will redeem her future. But The Rain People sees the general and the mythical through the individual. Although it contains a genuine responsiveness to some of the beauties and horrors of today's Midwest, it never claims to present a major statement about contemporary America.
Interestingly enough, one of the movie's failures is that it is not specific enough about contemporary society. Because it never ties its heroine to her period, the film loses its grip on her. We never learn enough about Natalie's background, the New York milieu that oppresses her. It is important to know, for example, whether she's an educated, intellectual woman or simply an average American housewife…. What is she running from exactly? What is she running towards? We don't expect her to have well-defined answers, but we do expect to get some idea of what qualities in her are frustrated by marriage, family, suburbia, what she hopes to find on her own…. By cutting her free from her time and her specialized milieu and making her a "universal" character, Coppola loses the intensity of her dilemma, fails to dramatize the tension between her maternal, domestic instincts and her more personal needs.
But Coppola's own ambivalence toward this woman cuts very deep and is probably ultimately responsible for his omission of the requisite background material. (pp. 13-14)
The real confusion in the film is not in Natalie, but in Coppola's attitude toward Natalie; his vision of her wavers between passionate sympathy and terrified hostility and revulsion—an oscillation that is apparent simply in the visual treatment of the character…. Coppola's feelings are out of control. He is frightened of Natalie's excesses, of her potential destructiveness, and as the film goes on, he judges her more and more harshly for abandoning her marital responsibilities. He seems to want to say that a woman's natural role is her domestic role, and that if she tries to deny her "nature," she will hurt herself and other people. So it becomes understandable why he never explores Natalie's background or the alternative to domestic life that she is seeking; if he got too close to her, it might complicate and undermine his moral position. Fortunately, the schizophrenia of the film—Coppola's irrespressible responsiveness to Natalie—keeps it from turning pat or unpleasantly moralistic. (pp. 14-15)
Coppola offers the kind of qualification to the frontier myth that Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy dwell on—the land itself is no longer pure, it is blighted by poverty, greed, desperation, hate. But his most searching criticism of the myth is his questioning of the value of freedom. To some extent one has to respect Coppola's skepticism about Natalie's unexamined faith in the westward journey as elixir. The grotesque scenes of Natalie putting on her make-up can perhaps be understood as Coppola's bitter parody of sexual and emotional freedom. "Freedom" can really be callous, cruel, destructive. And the lyrical shots of the countryside thus take on an especially ironic meaning in this film; we have to test our thrilled response to these romantic images against our growing realization that the dream of freedom—even if contemporary America would allow its fulfilment—is itself inadequate, for it denies other, richer possibilities and responsibilities in human relationships. Coppola has not quite successfully dramatized the full complexity of that theme, but his attempt is a fundamental criticism of American myths…. (p. 15)
In You're A Big Boy Now, there were traces of intensely personal material in the handling of the man-hating bitch Barbara Darling, and in the recurring images of sex as an engulfing experience and women as devourers—images charged with highly ambivalent feelings. But that personal material was almost lost in a superficial, tricky, and familiar film about an adolescent breaking free. In The Rain People Coppola's ambivalence toward women has taken the center of the screen, and he has explored his conflicting feelings in much greater depth, until finally the exploration becomes too painful, and Coppola drops his heroine for a series of safer, more manageable, still moderately interesting subordinate character sketches. (p. 16)
Stephen Farber, "End of the Road?" in Film Quarterly (copyright 1969 by The Regents of the University of California), Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Winter, 1969–70, pp. 3-16.∗
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If ever there was a great example of how the best popular movies come out of a merger of commerce and art, The Godfather is it. The movie starts from a trash novel that is generally considered gripping and compulsively readable, though (maybe because movies more than satisfy my appetite for trash) I found it unreadable…. Francis Ford Coppola, who directed the film, and wrote the script with Puzo, has stayed very close to the book's greased-lightning sensationalism and yet has made a movie with the spaciousness and strength that popular novels such as Dickens' used to have…. Puzo's shameless turn-on probably left Coppola looser than if he had been dealing with a better book; he could not have been cramped by worries about how best to convey its style…. He has salvaged Puzo's energy and lent the narrative dignity. Given the circumstances and the rush to complete the film and bring it to market, Coppola has not only done his best but pushed himself farther than he may realize. The movie is on the heroic scale of earlier pictures on broad themes, such as On the Waterfront, From Here to Eternity, and The Nun's Story. It offers a wide, startlingly vivid view of a Mafia dynasty. The abundance is from the book; the quality of feeling is Coppola's.
The beginning is set late in the summer of 1945; the film's roots, however, are in the gangster films of the early thirties…. We see the ethnic subculture, based on a split between the men's conception of their responsibilities—all that they keep dark—and the sunny false Eden in which they try to shelter the women and children. The thirties films indicated some of this, but The Godfather gets into it at the primary level; the willingness to be basic and the attempt to understand the basic, to look at it without the usual preconceptions, are what give this picture its epic strength.
The visual scheme is based on the most obvious life-and-death contrasts; the men meet and conduct their business in deep-toned, shuttered rooms, lighted by lamps even in the daytime, and the story moves back and forth between this hidden, nocturnal world and the sunshine that they share with the women and children…. The dark-and-light contrast is so operatic and so openly symbolic that it perfectly expresses the basic nature of the material. The contrast is integral to the Catholic background of the characters: innocence versus knowledge—knowledge in this sense being the same as guilt…. The killing, connived at in the darkness, is the secret horror, and it surfaces in one bloody outburst after another. It surfaces so often that after a while it doesn't surprise us, and the recognition that the killing is an integral part of business policy takes us a long way from the fantasy outlaws of old movies. These gangsters don't satisfy our adventurous fantasies of disobeying the law; they're not defiant, they're furtive and submissive. They are required to be more obedient than we are; they live by taking orders. There is no one on the screen we can identify with—unless we take a fancy to the pearly teeth of one shark in a pool of sharks.
Even when the plot strands go slack about two-thirds of the way through, and the passage of a few years leaves us in doubt whether certain actions have been concluded or postponed, the picture doesn't become softheaded. The direction is tenaciously intelligent. Coppola holds on and pulls it all together. (pp. 420-22)
The people dress in character and live in character—with just the gewgaws that seem right for them. The period details are there … but Coppola doesn't turn the viewer into a guided tourist, told what to see…. The Godfather keeps so much in front of us all the time that we're never bored (though the picture runs just two minutes short of three hours)—we keep taking things in. This is a heritage from Jean Renoir—this uncoercive, "open" approach to the movie frame. Like Renoir, Coppola lets the spectator roam around in the images, lets a movie breathe, and this is extremely difficult in a period film, in which every detail must be carefully planted. But the details never look planted: you're a few minutes into the movie before you're fully conscious that it's set in the past. (pp. 424-25)
When a film has as much novelistic detail as this one, the problem might seem to be almost insuperable. Yet, full as it is, The Godfather goes by evenly, so we don't feel rushed, or restless, either; there's classic grandeur to the narrative flow. But Coppola's attitudes are specifically modern—more so than in many films with a more jagged surface. Renoir's openness is an expression of an almost pagan love of people and landscape; his style is an embrace. Coppola's openness is a reflection of an exploratory sense of complexity; he doesn't feel the need to comment on what he shows us, and he doesn't want to reduce the meanings in a shot by pushing us this way or that. The assumption behind this film is that complexity will engage the audience.
These gangsters like their life style, while we—seeing it from the outside—are appalled. If the movie gangster once did represent, as Robert Warshow suggested in the late forties, "what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become," if he expressed "that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and the demands of modern life, which rejects 'Americanism' itself," that was the attitude of another era. In The Godfather we see organized crime as an obscene symbolic extension of free enterprise and government policy, an extension of the worst in America—its feudal ruthlessness. Organized crime is not a rejection of Americanism, it's what we fear Americanism to be. It's our nightmare of the American system…. The Godfather is popular melodrama, but it expresses a new tragic realism. (pp. 425-26)
Pauline Kael, "Alchemy" (originally published in The New Yorker, Vol. XLVIII, No. 4, March 18, 1972), in her Deeper Into Movies (copyright © 1972 by Pauline Kael; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 420-26.
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Hurricane Marlon is sweeping the country, and I wish it were more than hot air. A tornado of praise—cover stories and huzzahs—blasts out the news that Brando is giving a marvelous performance as Don Corleone in The Godfather….
But from his opening line, with his back toward us, Brando betrays that he hasn't even got the man's voice under control. (p. 104)
Like star, like film. The keynote is inflation. Because the picture has so much of the commonplace, it escapes being called commonplace. In no important way is it any better than The Brotherhood (1968), on the same subject. (The word Mafia is never mentioned, but it doesn't need to be.) The Godfather was made from a big best-seller, a lot of money was spent on it, and it runs over three hours. Therefore it's significant.
We're getting the usual flood of comments that the Mafia is only mirror-image corporate capitalism. (All the killings in the film are said to be "business, not personal.") These high-school analogies ignore, among other things, the origins of the Mafia and its blood-bonds of loyalty, which have nothing to do with capitalism. Almost every one in The Godfather is either a murderer or an accessory, so its moral center depends on inner consistency and on implicit contrast with non-murdering citizens around it. As the picture winds on and on, episode after episode, its only real change is the Mafia's shift from "nice" gambling and prostitution to take on "dirty" narcotics. (Time, the late 1940's.) Well, I suppose everything's going to hell, even the morality of the Mafia, but the picture certainly takes a long, long time to get there. (p. 105)
Stanley Kauffmann, "'The Godfather'" (originally published in The New Republic, Vol. 166, No. 14, April 1, 1972), in his Living Images: Film Comment and Criticism (copyright © 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974 by Stanley Kauffmann; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1975, pp. 104-05.
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Among other things, The Godfather is a strongly nostalgic film. Its period is post-World War II, but its flavor is of at least a decade earlier—it is a "big" picture, a Hollywood extravaganza of the sort that used to bring out the truck-mounted searchlights on opening night and the stars fluttering from autograph book to autograph book….
But that said, the success of The Godfather is deplorable, if you believe that popular entertainment both reflects and modifies social morale. In a sentence, the picture forces you to take sides, to form allegiances, in a situation that is totally without moral substance….
The authors of this film would say that they do not pander to vice, and I would agree at least that they do not intend to. They describe the society of Sicilian crime in America in the bleakest possible terms….
In this respect, The Godfather is probably more scrupulous than the classic gangster films of the Muni, Raft, Cagney era. But it is also more persuasively internalized than I remember those movies to have been. It is not a view of crime but a view from deep within crime…. There is no one in the picture to provide a bench mark of normality…. Nor is this the theatre of ideas…. Coppola has created a work that is extraordinary for the thick, sickish luxury of its texture and weak in narrative organization. (p. 442)
Michael is the character that best exemplifies the moral queasiness of the whole venture…. What the film overlooks, or at least studiously refrains from showing, in Michael's metamorphosis from modest war hero to reptilian gang chief, is that there is a purpose behind all the plotting and killing: it is to determine which gang of Sicilians shall have the right to suck the life out of an unsuspecting public. The film is mad, but at the end, so is the audience. (p. 444)
Robert Hatch, "Films," in The Nation (copyright 1972 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 214, No. 14, April 3, 1972, pp. 442-45.
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The Godfather is an incontrovertible demonstration of the continued vitality and artistic power of two things in films whose resources had increasingly been thought to be exhausted: of densely plotted, linear narrative, and of naturalism—social observation and the accumulation of authenticating detail—as a method. And it possesses, moreover, that special excitement and authority available to a film which is both a work of artistic seriousness and one of truly popular appeal, a mass entertainment made without pandering or condescension.
The Godfather is all these things and more, with such immense skill and assurance that I feel almost impatient with my own inability to enjoy it more, to escape some nagging dissatisfaction. The basis of that dissatisfaction is perhaps best expressed by the compliment which has been paid to the film by one of its many admirers: that it is the "Gone with the Wind of gangster films."… But it is in its attempt at definitiveness in relation to its antecedents in a genre—as a gangster film among other gangster films—that my reservations about The Godfather chiefly lie. And despite all the novelty of its variations on familiar material, it is primarily as a genre movie that I see it…. (p. 88)
At least, I'm far from prepared, as one who has watched (and shared) the responses of an audience as it assents to the killings by the Corleone family in The Godfather, to say that the appeal of the gangster in popular art has become one in which sadism no longer plays an important part….
The effect of stressing that the Corleones are in business, but limiting our view of their business to the expansion and consolidation of their power by their liquidation of the opposition, is to create probably the most consistent depiction of business-as-murder since Monsieur Verdoux. But despite this, and despite the film's sporadic gestures toward extending its trope of business-as-murder into the political sphere—the allusions to the Kennedys, to Lyndon Johnson (a meeting of rival mobs commenced with a sentiment about "reasoning together"), the remark by Michael, Don Corleon's heir, to his fiancée that she is being naive in saying the power of the Corleones is to be distinguished from that of Senators and Presidents because the latter do not kill people—it is not primarily in their aspect of businessmen that we see the gangsters in The Godfather. Rather—and one sees here the inadvertent felicity of the notorious expunging of all mention of the word "Mafia" in the film—it is as members of a "family": as godfather, father, grandparent, son, and brother. (p. 89)
What is this family whose claims override all others in The Godfather? It is, for one thing, a patriarchy, and the story the film has to tell is basically not Don Corleone's but Michael's: a story of his initiation into the family by an act of murder, of the succession of the youngest, most assimilated son to the patriarchal powers and responsibilities and the ethnic mystique of his father…. But is The Godfather an unambiguous celebration of this family? For a time, while its members are barricaded together from their enemies under the interim reign of Michael's brother, Sonny, there is, even in the sweaty, suffocating togetherness of their confinement, a real sense of Gemütlichkeit. But Sonny is a false godfather: hot-headed, bellicose, given to acting impetuously on his feelings without letting the family's interests temper his personal pride; he is, in the classic generic mold, an overreacher…. Under Don Corleone and, later, under Michael, what we are aware of instead is a large house whose dark interiors convey no sense of spaciousness, a feudal deference to rank and the lordly granting of dispensations, the suppression of dissent (so as not to give aid and comfort to the family's enemies), and a foundation of blasphemous hypocrisy…. (pp. 89-90)
Coppola at one time described his work on The Godfather as a commercial chore, distinguishable from his direction of a "personal" film like The Rain People, and yet, when one thinks back to The Rain People's ambiguous sense of family life as something whose responsibilities, however burdensome, could not be simply left behind, it almost seems that The Godfather is a film the director was fated to make….
What The Godfather does is to literalize this similarity: the gang's chieftain is no longer like a patriarch, he is a patriarch; the gang no longer resembles a family but has become one, and not just one more fragmented family among others but virtually the realization of that ideal of the nuclear, fortresslike family…. But is this image of gangsters as the fulfillment and embodiment of our discarded ideals—as the family next door in the 40's—a celebration of the values of which those ideals consist? I think it is rather more like a criticism of them, but a criticism of a peculiarly bland and muffled kind, a criticism to be found less in the content of the film than in the phenomenon of our response to it: in our ability to accept gangsters as embodiments of such values. Within the film, the ambiguity of its celebration of family life is never violated…. [The] effect of domesticating the genre in this way is less to subject familial values to a criticism than to strip the gangster of his mythic dimension and his tragic meaning for us: to convert him into only one more of those "good husbands and fathers" so familiar to us from the crimes of bureaucrats and obedient soldiers…. But at its best … the effect of the gangster genre was to press us to a recognition of the source in us of the gangster's disturbing hold on our imaginations. What are we that in this outsize, driven figure and his terrible excesses we can see an image, however extravagant and distorted, of ourselves? (p. 90)
William S. Pechter, "Keeping Up with the Corleones" (copyright © 1972 by William S. Pechter; reprinted by permission of the author), in Commentary, Vol. 54, No. 1, July, 1972, pp. 88-90 (and to be reprinted in his Movies plus One, Horizon Press, 1981).
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In The Godfather Coppola has almost reconciled the artistic and commercial impulses in his work. It is a spectacular that isn't vulgar or overblown or contemptuous of the audience; on the contrary, it seems smaller than it is—always thoughtful, often intimate, with a depth of feeling in its portrait of Italian family life that must grow from understanding and firsthand experience. Coppola has not sacrificed the quiet perception that he brought to The Rain People, but this time he has a strong narrative line to give the film dramatic momentum.
Considering the limitations of the material, it is remarkable how much social commentary Coppola manages to introduce….
The Corleones would in fact be difficult to distinguish from many respectable immigrant families. Their goals of material success are certainly estimable; the godfather is a perfect example of the American self-made man. The film plays up the contrast between the ruthless business ethics of the mafiosi, and the warmth and banality of their home lives….
[One] reason for the enduring power of the Mafia is that families like the Corleones operate under a more primitive code of justice and retribution than American society allows; they invest their work with Old World passion…. The Mafia brings a barbaric ferocity into American life, and satisfies the repressed but universal lust for revenge.
Here … the commentary on American history is provocative. The immigrant generation that struggled for a footing in America may have been ruthless and materialistic, but they tried to bring a measure of personal feeling into everything they did. (p. 218)
An intriguing sub-theme is the sexual bias built into American society. The film constantly emphasises the priority given to men in the Corleone family. 'May their first child be a masculine child,' a well-wisher tells Don Corleone on the day of his daughter's wedding…. The Sicilian sequence helps to locate the origins of this sexual prejudice in the Old World ideals of womanhood, a glorified conception of woman as a goddess who is automatically removed from mundane affairs—and therefore not really taken seriously.
It is tempting to elaborate on this theme in view of Coppola's other films, which seem very concerned—if ambivalent—about the question of the oppression and emancipation of women. The final image of The Godfather underscores Coppola's concern. When Michael's wife Kay asks him if he had anything to do with the murder of his sister's husband, he lies to her, comforting her with the patronising affection one would show a child…. That haunting conclusion exemplifies the film's ability to enrich its melodrama with a full-scale commentary on the failures of a generation. (pp. 218-19)
The film represents a union of Coppola's technical gifts with his understanding of actors. Visually it is a stunning work. Gordon Willis' slightly washed-out colour photography instantly evokes the 1940s, and Nino Rota's music adds to the nostalgic mood—particularly in the Hollywood sequence, a witty allusion to a dreamlike style of movieland glamour that has all but disappeared….
[Coppola] almost transforms The Godfather into a major film—almost, but not quite. The plot is so elaborate and methodical that it prevents some elements in the film—the transformation of Michael, and the evolution of a new-style bureaucratic Mafia—from being fully explored. We seize at hints in between the obligatory scenes that push the plot forward. Particularly in the middle of the film, there are long sections that work entirely on the level of narrative suspense and surprise, and on a second viewing anyway, these sections lag. The Godfather does not quite fuse its divergent elements; it remains brilliant in pieces, always engrossing, but not fully satisfying. (p. 219)
Stephen Farber, "Coppola and 'The Godfather'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1972 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 41, No. 4, Autumn, 1972, pp. 217-23.
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[Mr. Coppola has neither a personal statement to make in You're a Big Boy Now nor a personal style in which to make it.] His story is a compendium of clichés partially disguised in fancy dress, and his style is an anthology of what used to be new among the avant-garde pussycats—tricks and gimmicks that have now been so thoroughly absorbed into film language that you can see them any night on the television commercials. (pp. 98-9)
To give this mess movement, Mr. Coppola relies very heavily on shots of people running through the streets…. Sometimes people run around for no reason at all—they just run, run, run to demonstrate what free spirits some of the younger characters would be if the world were not so much with them. What they are running from or through or (in misguided moments) to are lots of crazy shots of the garish and vulgar sights of the Broadway area, of that discotheque and of the nightmarish lair Miss Hartman (as the beloved sicky) is made to inhabit and where, of course, Bernard suffers a dreadful sexual failure (it shouldn't really bother him—Don Juan himself would have been put off by the room's décor and her manner). All of this symbolizes decadence, while Bernard symbolizes healthy life, and the message of the contrast between him and his surroundings comes through loud, clear and repeatedly. Bad values, bad values—our Bernard has been growing up absurd, in his own little way is fighting a society that would rob him of his youthful innocence but replace it with nothing of value.
For the sake of argument let us concede that this viewpoint may have some validity if not, any more, much news value. The trouble is that it is only an abstraction, the merest and indeed the most conventional starting point for the true comic spirit to work from. What an artist would do is particularize it in terms of characters and situations which might give us a new, or at least arresting, vision of the ancient seriocomic battle of the generations. Instead, Mr. Coppola gives us only grossly exaggerated caricatures acting out the clichés of a psychological casebook, against backgrounds containing only the most conventionalized symbols of evil and innocence, joy and anguish. (pp. 99-100)
Mr. Coppola is a young man standing in front of a distorting mirror, trying on both the old and new intellectual clothing of his culture while trying out at the same time the imperfectly observed manners and gestures of the adult world. Somehow he has managed to convince himself that the occasionally bizarre combinations that sometimes result from this activity are, taken together, a creative act and not just self-indulgence.
It makes one very tired, as self-admiring brattiness always does. (p. 100)
Richard Schickel, "'You're a Big Boy Now'" (originally published in Life, March 24, 1967), in his Second Sight: Notes on Some Movies, 1965–70 (copyright © 1972 by, Richard Schickel; reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, a Division of Gulf & Western Corporation), Simon and Schuster, 1972, pp. 98-101.
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The world of The Godfather is one is in which the cruelties, the excesses, the vices of the "family" are legitimized, and, in almost every case, imbued with the sanction of moral necessity. Rather than subverting the common morality, this film supports all the traditional sanctions of our society; honor, love, support of family, and worldly success through competition. The film is so constructed that we are not even allowed to consider the true nature of the Corleone's business. (p. 205)
And, most important, there are no victims! We are never allowed to see the real human cost of the family business. We see no prostitutes, no junkies, no victims of extortion, or robbery; none of the actual human effects of the decisions and actions taken by these families. It is like watching the Viet Nam War from the Pentagon; it is all a simple bookkeeping operation.
And that is the first clue to the appeal of The Godfather. What we recognize, what appeals, is the fact that the film creates a kind of metaphor for life in the United States today. And, what sets it apart from other films is the fact that it not only depicts, but it also offers explanations for what have seemed to be such irrational acts in the last few years. It provides a backdrop of necessity for almost any act of mayhem, so long as you are true to your own. That nice young soldier, Michael, introduced at the opening of the film, is driven by events to become the new Godfather. He doesn't really enjoy the work, but it has to be done. Every act he plans or commits is a response to some previous violence committed against him or his loved ones. Isn't this the way we would (and some do) choose to think about Viet Nam? Isn't the way these movie Mafia families deal with one another analogous to our own international relations?
Let me sketch the world of The Godfather. The family is only seen in their walled compound, a kind of fortress shielding the idyllic family life within. This world inside is ruled by a wise and, above all, honorable lord who protects and cares for his subjects. Outside this "happy kingdom" is a much different world, threatening, competitive, mean and ugly. This is the world in which the Corleone men must fight and compete. The Corleone women, such as we are allowed to see, do not venture into this world.
The major forces with which the Corleone men contend in this outside world are other, similar, families competing for the same "markets." We see "acceptable" mayhem between members of these families. These acts are "acceptable" because a state of "war" exists, and these men are soldiers doing their duty. They are defending their homes and holdings in the classic western tradition, a modern version of "the Code of the West." (pp. 205-06)
Occasionally, we are given a glimpse of a larger "real" world, a society with laws and mores, but this world's intrusion only seems to justify the Corleone's way of life…. [We] see Michael slapped around by a police officer. That officer, a Captain, turns out to be the most odious personality in the entire movie, and he is very satisfyingly disposed of by Michael, who is absolved, of course, by the motivating slap.
The police Captain is noteworthy because he performs several functions simultaneously. Aside from moving the plot along, by forcing Michael to flee to Sicily, his corruption is emblematic of the very evil Don Vito Corleone is fighting. He is a man without honor, the bought betrayer, evil of evils. And we are led to feel that his murder is justified, even though we should know that no murder can be. (p. 206)
The parallels between the world of the Corleones and a world picture widely held in grassroots America seem obvious. Fortress America, rich and powerful, surrounded by covetous neighbors alternately fights and negotiates with the powerful ones, exploits the weaker. Because America is strong, its use of strength with other nations is justified. We are the "happy kingdom." The council of bosses is analogous to a summit conference and the police and the FBI is a kind of world force, the U.N. perhaps, to be used or ignored as called for by the situation. But, underlying all, is the firm belief that there are easy answers, that intensifying bombing will stop a war, that cutting welfare payments will cure poverty. This belief, coupled with the ideal that individual action can right the world or alter history, is the basis of the appeal of this film. And, although intentionality is not an issue in this paper, it is one of grave concern.
I would hypothesize that a work of popular art provides a metaphor for our problems and dilemmas and then solves those metaphorical problems. In that way it provides for our need for explanations of the way things are, and simultaneously gives us solutions to those problems, a way out. The success of The Godfather rests primarily on its success in accomplishing both of these ends. (pp. 206-07)
Popular art tends to harden and support values already held by the audience and, in the case of The Godfather, to justify any act that will maintain these values. The audience comes away from that movie feeling vindicated. (p. 207)
Jonathan P. Latimer, "'The Godfather': Metaphor and Microcosm," in Journal of Popular Film (copyright © 1973 by Sam L. Grogg, Jr., Michael T. Marsden, and John G. Nachbar), Vol. II, No. 2, 1973, pp. 204-08.
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The Conversation is remarkably ambitious and serious—a Hitchcockian thriller, a first-rate psychological portrait of a distinctive modern villain (a professional eavesdropper) and a bitter attack on American business values, all in one movie. I feel that Coppola has partially botched the thriller, but the film is a triumph none the less—gritty, complex, idiosyncratic….
The Conversation, which is about a man rather like Watergate bugger James McCord, profits from the great American national uproar over privacy and illegal surveillance. But Coppola claims that he began writing the screenplay for The Conversation in 1966, years before such things became national issues, so let us call his timeliness prescient rather than lucky. Timeliness isn't necessarily a sign of triviality in an artist; it may be a sign of good instinct, an ability to connect personal concern with national obsession. I think Coppola may become this sort of non-exploitative 'public' artist, a kind of cinematic Dickens (all proportions kept).
There's no doubt that he develops his protagonist, Harry Caul …, with a Dickensian richness of eccentricity, an extension of spiritual condition into physical metaphor. The conception is audacious and aggressively paradoxical…. We soon realise that Harry suffers from an extreme desolation of the spirit, a nearly pathological loneliness and guilt; his insistence on 'privacy' is just a way of keeping people at a distance. Repressed, awkward, terrified of his own powers and feelings, he cannot bear the demands people make on him, any demands. (p. 131)
Coppola's paradox grows in power and wit as its logic becomes clear. Poor Harry is so fearful, so given over to obsession, that he begins spying on himself. Before entering his mistress's door he hides outside, 'casing' the apartment; since it's clear that she has not been unfaithful, who is he casing but himself, a man caught red-handed in the act of visiting his mistress?…
Against his will, Harry has become part of a murder plot; when he discovers that his own apartment has been bugged by the plotters, he rips it to pieces, tearing up the walls, the floor, the furniture in a fruitless search for the microphone. The insane logic of Harry's obsession has thus been fulfilled: the bugger gets bugged, the man with only his privacy to protect destroys his possessions and winds up guarding literally nothing—an empty space, a cavity sealed with locks. The American mania for 'home security' here reaches its comic apotheosis. Our last view of Harry is very sad: he sits alone in the wreckage playing a saxophone along with a jazz record—halfway into life, halfway out. We're left with little doubt that the stasis is permanent. (p. 132)
Indeed, Harry Caul would like to operate as efficiently and impersonally as any other professional. He would like to think of his victims as anonymous 'targets', to lose himself in the delightful technical intricacies of robbing them without regard for what he is stealing or what they might feel about it.
The movie is an angry, funny attack on this sort of thinking, which Coppola sees as a natural product of American business values and our eternal boyish enthusiasm for technology as an end in itself. Stealing privacy has become part of the American way of life, and to make the point clear Coppola sends Harry to a San Francisco convention of security experts and equipment manufacturers, at which evil, destructive but undeniably ingenious little spying gadgets are hawked and sold like kitchen appliances or motorboats…. In The Godfather, also, the most extreme and fantastic behaviour was shown to emerge from a setting of normality—family life. Coppola seems to relish the more bizarre American contradictions, the clash between context and substance, between the style of an act (banal) and its meaning (horrifying).
Although he is drawn to extreme behaviour, Coppola's style of representation remains straightforwardly realistic. That's why his films may not at first appear to be the work of an artist. His attitudes and personality emerge not so much from the camera style as from the behaviour on screen. For instance, he has a genius for shallow, noisy, self-propelling types—the American as untrammelled egotist, powerful and infantile at the same time. He appears to love their theatrical energy and flash, and his sense of how such people reveal themselves in social situations is so accurate that he can do very funny, outrageous scenes without a trace of caricature. (Much of The Godfather, of course, was extremely funny.)
In The Conversation, Coppola has a savagely good time with Harry's surveillance colleagues. Boastful, frenetic, absurdly aggressive, these American go-getters can't stop competing for a moment, not even at a party, and so they begin showing off and playing dirty tricks on one another…. The surveillance experts are hideously funny and also tragic; looking at them it's hard for an American not to think of soldiers testing weapons in Vietnam and other examples of professionals run amuck. By immersing himself in a particular, idiosyncratic corner, accurately perceived, Coppola has made contact with a major strain in American life, a malaise that persists through generations. His unresolved love-hate relationship with the characters makes the bitterness of his criticism acceptable; if he entirely hated them, the film would have collapsed into diatribe, and we would have rejected his attitudes out of hand.
In a long, fascinating sequence, Harry reconstructs on tape the lovers' conversation as they walk slowly around a crowded San Francisco square…. As Harry mixes the separate tracks together, perfecting the aural image, we actually see the conversation; and it occurs to us that Harry is reconstructing and perfecting life—or at least a simulacrum of it. Of course film-making is also a reconstruction of life, and it's tempting to view The Conversation's attack on irresponsible professionalism as also an implied attack on certain kinds of irresponsible filmmaking—empty, technically perfect work in which beautiful images are the director's only achievement; art without feeling or bite. (pp. 132-33)
Did Coppola intend The Conversation as a critical commentary on Blow-Up, a way of showing how that kind of story could be done? (He started work on the screenplay the year Blow-Up was completed.) The similarity is suggestive; both films centre on technological voyeurism and irresponsibility, and Harry's work with the tape parallels the famous sequence in which the fashion photographer discovers a murder by repeatedly cropping and blowing up a photograph….
Coppola has rescued the story from 'art'. He places his alienated man in a recognisable American business/social world, and the details and mood seem intuitively right, making emotional contact in a way that Antonioni's awkward, vaguely metaphorical use of swinging London commonplaces did not. Moreover, Coppola is far too interested in Harry to allow this sad technological wizard to become an example of modern man's inability to feel or communicate or any rot like that. Contradictory, stubbornly eccentric, intensively imagined as a particular kind of human futility, Harry could never inspire any such banal interpretation…. [He] is anything but emotionally dead (that cliché of 'advanced' film-making)—he's inarticulate because he feels too much and too incoherently, immobile because every possible road of conduct becomes an imagined disaster. Participating in life is an agony for such a man; therefore whether he acts or fails to act, we are drawn to him emotionally.
Unfortunately, after all the suspense build-up, the repeated playing of the tape, etc., Coppola never satisfies our curiosity about the mystery itself. Limited to what Harry knows, we never quite understand what is going on, and some of this confusion could have been avoided with a little extra exposition…. Murder mysteries are often full of … loopholes, but we generally don't notice them—the pacing is too fast. The Conversation's slow, repetitive, accumulative method forces us to review what we know, like a detective building a case, and the narrative sloppiness becomes irritating. Worst of all, the surprise denouement, in which the victims and murderers get reversed and Harry realizes that he has been used even more viciously than he had thought, occurs so quickly and casually that we can hardly take it in. I sympathise with Coppola's dilemma. A confrontation between Harry and the young couple might have straightened things out easily enough, but by presenting Harry with an actual physical threat (as Hitchcock did to his voyeur in Rear Window) Coppola would have turned The Conversation into a more conventional melodrama. He sticks to the internal and psychological threat, thereby losing a part of his audience at the end—an honourable failure. (p. 133)
David Denby, "Stolen Privacy: Coppola's 'The Conversation'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1974 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 43, No. 3, Summer, 1974, pp. 131-33.
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[The Conversation calls strongly to mind] Antonioni's 1966 film, Blow-Up. Though this is most obvious in the actual "blow-up" (i.e., tape-deciphering) sequence itself, the resemblance extends from the painterly look of the film (some of the shots in Harry's apartment have an almost Vermeer-like quality of sculptured light) to such small details as the appearance of a mime in the opening sequence who seems to constitute a quite pointed reference to the mimes whose appearances bracket the action of the Antonioni film. Indeed, the resemblance extends even to the overall design of the two films: in both, a protagonist, through some means of mechanical reproduction, uncovers a mystery, and in both an ambiguous mystery-thriller plot is used to get at something beyond the thriller's conventions.
It's here, however, that the flaws of the Coppola film begin to reveal themselves. For whatever one may justly say about Blow-Up's superficiality, in it, the mystery plot is perfectly geared to the film's meaning. (p. 63)
But this relation of plot to theme has gone askew in The Conversation. I'm not referring merely to minor implausibilities along the way…. Rather, it is the resolution of the mystery itself that seems to work against the movie. For it turns out, in the plot's final twist, that the conversation Harry records is taking place not between the potential victims of a murder but between its planners—and Harry's attempts at intercession fail to prevent it.
"I thought I was writing a film about privacy," Coppola has said, "but I was also making a film about responsibility." To the extent that The Conversation is a film about the invasion of privacy, a statement against bugging (and it is only partly this), it's one whose plot could be used (indeed, could more easily be used) to justify bugging, in that Harry's surveillance uncovers a plan to commit a murder which thus could conceivably have been prevented…. And to the extent that the film is about the taking of moral responsibility for one's actions (which it also is in part), it ends with Harry attempting for the first time to do just that, and failing; and, moreover, being, in effect, punished for attempting in a final too-easy irony of the bugger bugged, himself being spied on by those whose crime he has discovered. Perhaps because Coppola is on some level aware of these contradictions, the mystery plot is allowed to sputter out in a welter of ambiguities, not in the sense of Blow-Up's but rather those of a Marienbad-like confusion of images which may or may not be real, some (or all) of which may exist, that is, only in Harry's imagination…. Ambiguity serves here not so much for resonance as for camouflage: to create a deliberate vagueness. (pp. 63-4)
I may seem, then, to be saying The Conversation is a failure, and yet the wonder is, for all that's wrong with it, just how impressive a work it remains: impressive in its very seriousness (a seriousness I value more than all of Blow-Up's cleverness), but also for its intensity of feeling and for the many parts of it which rise above the mystery plot's defects to attain a haunting life of their own. And despite its faults, it leaves one more impressed than before with the qualities of its director. For if a wholly definable personality has yet to emerge from Coppola's films as, for better or worse, one can be seen in the work of a Peckinpah or Altman, some features are nevertheless beginning to grow more clear…. The Conversation seems, among other things, a deliberate attempt to turn away from the florid, operatic style of The Godfather, to create a kind of chamber work, which is perfectly valid except insofar as Coppola may believe the later film's unyieldingly somber mood and textural spareness are in themselves the mark of its superiority. Though I have reservations about The Godfather, as about all of Coppola's films, those reservations have nothing to do with that richness in portraiture and storytelling which has earned the film its popularity, and which really gives it more in common with The Rain People than that earlier, more "personal" work has with The Conversation….
But if The Conversation began in ideas about "privacy" and "responsibility," it ends in Harry Caul, neither an abstraction nor a figure from the headlines but a singular human being tormented by his own private demons. Which is to say the film is about responsibility, not in any legalistic Watergate sense, but in The Rain People's sense of our interconnectedness, and about a character, as much as the wife in The Rain People, in flight from that responsibility—from the burden of human contact and its attendant pain. And as in The Rain People, Coppola is able to depict such a character with a kind of cold, clear, unsentimental sympathy, without either condescension or moralizing: the kind of moralizing one sees in the Antonioni of Blow-Up…. For all its flaws and its sharing with Coppola's other films the sense of having been made by an artist who hasn't yet wholly discovered his ideal materials, The Conversation stirs with an emergent life. The photographer-protagonist in Blow-Up is complete and perfect, but he's merely a construct, a conceit. Harry Caul may not be fully formed or quite understood, but he is a creation, and his squalid anguish is sometimes genuinely lived through. (p. 64)
William S. Pechter, "Coppola's Progress," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 58, No. 1, July, 1974, pp. 61-4.
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[Much of The Conversation] is very well-made…. There is, of course, no James Bond glamour, and yet Coppola also manages not to show off his sense of realism in any ostentatious manner. It is understated, subtle and at times probing.
But when he starts in with the whodunit nonsense, the whole film begins to fall apart. Replacing the cool intellectual detachment, there emerges a frenetic paranoia wildly hopping about….
In the most crucial spots, in fact, The Conversation is muddle-headed, phony and cheap. Muddle-headed because although Coppola appears, at times, to say that Harry Caul is responsible for his actions and their consequences, we see, at the conclusion, that his bugging did not lead to a murder but in fact might have prevented one—moral substance subordinated to pyrotechnical shenanigans. Phony because Harry, who is shown to be so paranoid that he won't tell his loved and loving girlfriend a single fact about himself, nonetheless allows a party whore whom he scarcely knows to bed down with him in his office, all of the tapes and his valuable equipment a few steps away—plot convenience outbidding character development. Cheap because the ending strikes one as being a sleazy trick and exposes as nonsense any thoughts up until then that the film might have any political cogency—again, mindless form taking precedence over thoughtful content.
Indeed, toward the end of the film, things become so blurry that it's difficult to tell what is really happening and what is merely a product of Harry's paranoid imagination. Not even Coppola seems to know—nor, as he has indicated in at least one interview, does he care. Still, it makes little difference: reality, fantasy, or some literary shade of 'ambiguity'—nothing adds up to anything interesting, whatever the view.
The point is that these flaws—and many others that could be cited—are not mere foibles that can be mentally tucked away and forgotten about. It is these plot inconsistencies, lapses of logic, stupid 'surprise' twists, and pointless confusions, these ineptitudes and dishonesties, in short, that characterize the mentality that went into this film's making. They reveal that Coppola has no real social, political, or any other sort of point in mind (at least not anything of consistency), while at the same time posing as if he ever so profoundly does.
Fred Kaplan, "Film Reviews: 'The Conversation'," in Cinéaste (copyright © 1974 by Gary Crowdus), Vol. VI, No. 3, 1974, p. 32.
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The daring of ["The Godfather, Part II"] is that it enlarges the scope and deepens the meaning of the first film; "The Godfather" was the greatest gangster picture ever made, and had metaphorical overtones that took it far beyond the gangster genre. In Part II, the wider themes are no longer merely implied. The second film shows the consequences of the actions in the first; it's all one movie, in two great big pieces, and it comes together in your head while you watch. Coppola might almost have a pact with the audience; we're already so engrossed in the Corleones that now he can go on to give us a more interior view of the characters at the same time that he shows their spreading social influence. The completed work is an epic about the seeds of destruction that the immigrants brought to the new land, with Sicilians, Wasps, and Jews separate socially but joined together in crime and political bribery. This is a bicentennial picture that doesn't insult the intelligence. It's an epic vision of the corruption of America. (p. 63)
Structurally, the completed work [of both Godfather films] is nothing less than the rise and decay of an American dynasty of unofficial rulers. Vito rises and becomes a respected man while his son Michael, the young king, rots before our eyes, and there is something about actually seeing the generations of a family in counterpoint that is emotionally overpowering. It's as if the movie satisfied an impossible yet basic human desire to see what our parents were like before we were born and to see what they did that affected what we became—not to hear about it, or to read about it, as we can in novels, but actually to see it. It really is like the past recaptured…. The whole picture is informed with such a complex sense of the intermingling of good and evil—and of the inability to foresee the effects of our love upon our children—that it may be the most passionately felt epic ever made in this country.
Throughout the three hours and twenty minutes of Part II, there are so many moments of epiphany—mysterious, reverberant images, such as the small Vito singing in his cell—that one scarcely has the emotional resources to deal with the experience of this film…. You need these moments as you need the terrible climaxes in a Tolstoy novel. A great novelist does not spare our feelings (as the historical romancer does); he intensifies them, and so does Coppola. On the screen, the speed of the climaxes and their vividness make them almost unbearably wounding. (pp. 63-4)
Many people who saw "The Godfather" developed a romantic identification with the Corleones; they longed for the feeling of protection that Don Vito conferred on his loving family. Now that the full story has been told, you'd have to have an insensitivity bordering on moral idiocy to think that the Corleones live a wonderful life, which you'd like to be part of.
The violence in this film never doesn't bother us—it's never just a kick. For a movie director, Coppola has an unusual interest in ideas and in the texture of feeling and thought. This wasn't always apparent in the first film, because the melodramatic suspense was so strong that one's motor responses demanded the resolution of tension…. But this time Coppola controls our emotional responses so that the horror seeps through everything and no action provides a melodramatic release. Within a scene Coppola is controlled and unhurried, yet he has a gift for igniting narrative, and the exploding effects keep accumulating. About midway, I began to feel that the film was expanding in my head like a soft bullet. (p. 64)
Pauline Kael, "Fathers and Sons," in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. L, No. 44, December 23, 1974, pp. 63-6.
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[The Godfather, Part II] strikes me as better than its predecessor, though this is lukewarm praise at best….
Better an honest gangster than a crooked politician, [The Godfather, Part II] is saying, as if those were the only possible choices.
Repellent as these stances are, they at least occupy the mind that tries to oppose them. There was nothing to think about in The Godfather except when, of what sort, and how big the next bloodletting will be. Here there is less bloodshed, more scheming and counter-scheming, which is more interesting. (p. 31)
However, the final argument in favor of Part II is that it is better made, of sounder workmanship. Coppola is getting to be a more competent director: A scene here is allowed more leisure and breathing space, is less like a guided missile trained with dumb, mechanical determinism to explode on a specific target. Thus the characterizations of Hyman Roth, the Jewish gangster …, and Pentangeli, an aging Mafia capo losing his grip …, create a dense, credible atmosphere rather than just advance the plot. (p. 32)
True, he does fall back on the tricks of Part I: beginning with a gay festivity with troubling undertones, and ending with a rapid pileup of major murders and suicides followed by Michael's dark, lonely, supremacy. But, somehow, the hand is steadier here, the sensationalism kept at bay…. (pp. 32, 47)
[The] film moves along for its two hundred minutes without actually boring us. The moral defects are undeniable and repugnant—no amount of canting comparisons of the Mafia to the Roman Empire or tributes from Michael Corleone to Fidel Castro's revolution can alter that—but the movie is well put together and steadily watchable. One could ask for more, but nowadays one is likely to get much less. (p. 47)
John Simon, "Films: 'The Godfather, Part II'" (reprinted by permission of Wallace & Sheil Agency, Inc.; copyright © 1975 John Simon), in Esquire, Vol. LXXXIII, No. 3, March, 1975, pp. 31-2, 47.
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The Godfather, Parts I and II, are at their deepest level a brilliant revelation of the family, how it worked through the generations, and how it now falls apart. In Part I Coppola and his actors create a real, living, breathing world. Coppola presents his world with what Pauline Kael calls an open camera; everything is shown, the detail is absolutely convincing, and it is convincing because the viewer is allowed to take it all in naturally, without comment by the director. Watching the movie, you know that this is how life is. The director reveals, he does not preach.
Coppola reveals a family, in that first grand scene of Part I, engaged in the most familial of rituals, a daughter's wedding. The scene is a picture of tradition, and not merely Italian tradition, but the tradition of the West. The man of respect in the community gathers his neighbors around him, to observe the relinquishing of the care of his daughter to another man, her husband. Implicit in this act is the key to the Western family, the subservience of the woman to the man. The woman bears and tends the children in the home, and the man is strong for his family, to protect them and his home from a hostile world. This is how things work in Part I; all the action takes place in this framework.
Even the violence and brutality of Don Corleone's criminal empire fit within this family framework. To call an organization that deals in murder and revenge a "family" is not hypocritical at all. Indeed, it evokes the very origin of the family, that primordial time when anybody or anything that threatened a man's home was beaten to death with a rock. Don Corleone's family is a throwback to that violent time when the family existed primarily for mutual protection. (pp. 158-59)
Don Corleone dies in the sun, in his garden, with his grandson thinking it's all a part of the game. It is. The game goes on, the rules are in force, Anthony will become a man in the same rich, brutal family tradition in which his grandfather, and his grandfather's grandfather, became men.
Before Anthony takes his first communion, the game is over. The world of the wedding party in Part I is, in the Tahoe party at the opening of Part II, in chaos. Throughout Part II there is a terrible sense of things falling apart. Murders, executed with cruel efficiency in Part I, are clumsily botched in Part II. Panic sweeps the city of Havana as the government collapses before the rebels….
The most distressing and fundamental sign of change in Part II is evident in the women of the family. Connie neglects her children and hops from husband to husband. Fredo's wife gets drunk and falls all over other men, humiliating her husband and his family. These crimes are most disturbing because they are crimes against the institution of the family, committed by those on whose obedience the family depends. If women leave the home, the very reason for the family is gone, there is nothing left for the men to protect, the bottom has fallen out. (p. 161)
Michael's father would fare no better in this new world than Michael does, and that is Michael's tragedy. For Michael, it is clear that the most important thing, the only thing, is to establish what his father would have done in a situation and follow that lead…. His success at following his father's lead, and the devastating inadequacy of Vito's example as a model for action in Michael's generation, is clearly established by the jumps between the two men's stories.
The scene switches back and forth repeatedly from a family scene in Vito's young manhood to a family scene in Michael's time. (pp. 161-62)
Technically Michael stands up well against his father's example as head of the family. (p. 162)
Connie acknowledges this in her return to the family at her mother's death. "You were just being strong for all of us the way Papa was," she tells Michael. By now, however, Michael knows that his strength is his family's doom. He knows how hard it is in his time to emulate his father. "It's not easy to be a son, Fredo," he says in the banana daquiri scene in Havana, and there is real empathy in that statement. He and Fredo, as sons in the family, must follow their father. Fredo fails, Michael succeeds, but both are destroyed. Michael, unlike Fredo, suffers the terrible fate of awareness. He must watch himself die without being able to do a thing about it. "He was being strong," he says of his father, "strong for his family. But," he asks his mother, "by being strong—could he lose it?" The old woman doesn't understand. She tells him he will have other children. "No," Michael pleads, "I meant lose his family." "But you can never lose your family," she answers from another universe.
"Times are changing."
These are conservative movies that Coppola has made, conservative in the noblest sense. They apologize for nothing in the past, and hide nothing. Nor do they pretend that the past could or should have survived. But they mourn its passing. (pp. 162-63)
John Yates, "Godfather Saga: The Death of the Family," in Journal of Popular Film (copyright © 1975 by Sam L. Grogg, Jr., Michael T. Marsden, and John G. Nachbar), Vol. IV, No. 2, 1975, pp. 157-63.
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[The Corleones were portrayed—at least in the first half of The Godfather]—as a model of health, yes, as happy monsters whose violent behavior emerged from a high appetite for life as much as from the family's peculiar way of doing business. The ambivalence was morally audacious for a popular movie, and it's a mark of Coppola's skill that he got almost everyone to accept it. By the time Michael Corleone shoots his father's enemies in the restaurant scene, Coppola had most of us where he wanted us; the hair-raising use of conventional narrative techniques secured our acquiescence and complicity. With an awed laugh, directed at ourselves as much as the screen, we accepted the notion that Michael's violence was an act of family piety, a way of accepting his father, his family past, his natural destiny.
Those few who didn't accept it, who were alarmed by the mixture of graciousness and murder, complained of sentimentality. For the anti-sentimentalists there was too much happiness in the Corleone family and too much pictorial beauty in the movie. Despite the disingenuous strategy of The Godfather that I mentioned earlier, the charge of sentimentality makes no sense to me. It ignores the entire second half of the movie, where Michael Corleone gradually becomes an isolated and ruthless killer, up to the remarkable moment when he looks his wife straight in the eye and lies, shutting her out forever. As for the ingratiating visual quality of the film, a grainy, intentionally sordid photographic style would actually have been the more conventional option for a gangster movie. Instead, Coppola emphasized the beauty of the gangsters' lives in both Sicily and America, increasing our sense of moral squalor and violation: they lived in beauty and acted vilely…. During the shimmering, slightly overexposed Sicilian sequences we are meant to feel the corruption gathering in the lemon and green ripeness of the countryside. Sicily, that eternally fouled paradise! The rottenness became an emanation of its heat and sun. This may not impress historians or political scientists very much, but it's the most expressive kind of movie shorthand. The dark brown and red American interiors, a setting for secrets and plots, carried associations of the corrupted stained-leather atmosphere, the phony distinguished style, of boardrooms, manor libraries, and clubs. Like so much of the best popular art, The Godfather was almost seductively easy and pleasurable, but its pleasurableness functioned for the audience as a variety of knowledge—we were provoked by the satisfaction the movie gave us into new forms of understanding.
The Godfather II is also extraordinarily beautiful, but it's a much slower, heavier, more obviously ironic film, without the paralyzing energy, audacious wit, or imperious command of the audience. Admirers have found a quality of new "depth," but to me it feels like new weight…. My complaint is that it draws on Part One with rather dismaying reverence and over-explicitness, dulling the interest—through sheer attenuation—of ideas that were clear and forceful in the earlier film's closing scenes: the increasing isolation of the Americanized Mafioso, Michael Corleone, and the persistence of Sicilian patterns of "honor" through the generations. In Part One the cultural mix of Sicily and America produced some episodes that were funny and bizarrely "right" (the men plotting tribal vengeance over a take-home dinner) and also a convincing denouement. In Part Two, however, the intercutting of America in the sixties with earlier periods in Sicily and Little Italy produces the effect of a pattern sustained by will power and heavy labor after its logic has collapsed. Now that Michael's so completely an American it's no longer unequivocally "right" that he act with Sicilian thoroughness and cruelty at the end, murdering his own brother…. The results are hollow, mechanical on a grand scale, and incomprehensible. They try to place the "sociological" view of Italian-American crime in historical perspective, ranging from Fanucci, the florid turn-of-the-century neighborhood extortionist in white suit and erotic moustaches, to Michael Corleone, grey-suited, corporation-cold, ruthlessly presiding over the fouling of contemporary America with WASP and Jew as equal partner. This is beguiling as social history but extremely vague as information on the details of criminal activity in any period. After six hours and twenty minutes of film I still haven't understood how a single one of these gangsters actually operates. (pp. 114-16)
A movie epic needs an eccentric character as its focus or else it solemnly tells us what we already know. Unfortunately, as Michael Corleone grows older he becomes another of those familiar, semi-mythological American bastards, an obscenely rich and completely lonely man of great power…. The final scenes, with Michael brooding over his darkened blue lake while memories of the family he's decimated torture his mind, resound with the hollow certainty of an irony too easily achieved. In Part One Coppola escaped from those moralists who wanted the Corleones to be unhappy, but now he's succumbed.
Still, despite all one's dissatisfactions, Coppola appears to be a uniquely central and powerful American talent. His feeling for American surfaces—the glancing intimations of social status in gesture, tone of voice, decor, clothes—is as precise as any director's in American film history. Perhaps one has to cite John O'Hara for the proper comparison, but Coppola is more playful. His showpiece big party scene near the beginning of Part Two, an obvious contrast with Part One's wedding celebration, depends on observation so acute it becomes a form of malicious wit. The Corleones have charged into the American center by the late fifties, and they've paid the price in blandness: their lakeside bash is a ceremonial drag, more like a TV variety show than a party; the hearty Italian street music has been replaced by a suave-sounding dance band and a blond cherub's chorus, the natural gaiety by a desperate desire to have fun. Having moved the base of their operations from Long Island to Lake Tahoe, they've fallen in with western WASPs, or at least the dissolute remainders of a WASP ruling class…. Coppola's unusual curiosity about such things as fatherhood, marriage, power, spiritual anguish, etc., sets him apart from the run of Hollywood directors as a central interpreter of American experience, a man taking the big risks, working outside the limits of traditional genres. The lack of eccentricity or repeating obsession, the avoidance of obvious visual metaphor or radical foreshortening of narrative may deceive some viewers into declaring there's no artist behind the perfectly achieved images, the marvelous amplitude and evenness of flow, but that would be a mistake induced by the influence of the auteur theory on educated taste. Those looking for "personality"—the flourishes of "signature"—may be too distracted to feel the power of Coppola's work. His personality (sad word) emerges in the way he chooses to reveal his characters…. To expose the murderous falsity of appearances without betraying the appearances themselves remains one of the principal tasks of realism and one of the things movies do most successfully. Coppola's work, at its best, sustains the highest traditions of realism. Despite everything that can be marked off against him, there's every reason to expect Coppola to be a principal exponent of American themes in the movies of the next two decades. (pp. 116-18)
David Denby, "The Two Godfathers," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1976 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLIII, No. 1, 1976, pp. 113-18.
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Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation is a perplexing film about a wiretapper named Harry Caul who becomes involved in a murder. Harry is less a character in the traditional sense than he is a symbol or cipher for modern man immersed in a technological society that undermines human values and thwarts human needs. As a technician in this dehumanizing environment, Harry seems unwilling or unable to relate to people or to take the moral action necessary to change his life or even save the lives of others. Hired by the director of an unnamed corporation, Harry tapes a conversation between the director's wife and her lover. Although this conversation forces Harry to see the terrifying consequences of his work, he remains isolated, alienated, and in a sense unborn because of his inability to make moral choices. (p. 26)
Understanding this complex film is somewhat easier when one recognizes the significance of Harry Caul's name because it is a key to his character and to the visual style and themes of The Conversation…. A caul is a "thin membrane enveloping the foetus, which covers the head of some newly born children: an omen of good fortune with powerful magical properties; it protects sailors from drowning, presumably because it was thought to keep the foetus from drowning in the womb." (pp. 26-7)
[But] "caul" is only ironically a good omen for the withdrawn and incommunicative Harry. We can see his ever present plastic raincoat as the veil or caul that he uses to protect himself against the world; it is his prophylactic against human contact….
The caul, the membrane enveloping of the head of a child, is the most frequently recurring image in the film. Harry is seen dimly through screens, translucent glass, plastic curtains, or less frequently through bars and grillwork. This visual motif presents Harry as a trapped, caged man who is difficult to penetrate, to understand, to get close to. The caul protects the unborn foetus, but Harry subverts the use of the caul by making it a shield against life and the moral responsibility that comes with maturity. (p. 27)
The film is, in fact, a study of Harry's abortive struggle to get himself born as a moral man. It begins, ironically, on Harry's birthday. Harry's obsessive need for privacy arises partly out of his inability to face the world where moral choices are inevitable and have consequences. Clearly terrified that his own privacy could be invaded and that he might find himself getting involved with anyone, Harry erects elaborate defenses against his "birth." Such protective strategies insure his loneliness, but are otherwise ineffective. (p. 28)
Harry does not prevent the director's murder, but manages to take the hotel room adjacent to the murder room. Crouched behind the toilet and toilet paper, Harry taps into the next room and listens to an ongoing argument between the director, his wife, and her lover. Frightened by what he hears, Harry drops his equipment and begins pacing his hotel room like a trapped animal. We see him slumped in a chair and looking blankly at the wall and the wallpaper mural depicting the San Francisco Bay. Coppola shows us several shots of the wallpaper scene from Harry's point of view. As an American skilled in escaping, evading and avoiding himself, Harry has, like the pioneers before him, run out of the territory ahead. Starting in New York where his work led to several murders, Harry has made the historical trek from East to West, and now at the edge of the Pacific he may have to confront the consequences of his actions. But once Harry goes out on his balcony and sees a bloody hand pressed against the glass door of the adjoining room, he retreats back into his room where he draws the curtains, turns on the TV set, and, in an action that visually parodies his surname, pulls the bedclothes over his head like a caul. Harry falls asleep and wakes to the blaring TV set where the prehistoric Fred Flintstone, in a kind of parody of Harry's anxieties, is impatiently pacing a room, waiting for his wife to give birth.
Awake or asleep, Harry cannot escape from his Catholic sense of guilt or his incipient moral concerns. In a dream, Harry has previously envisioned the murder he anticipates will be committed in the hotel room, but because of the misinterpretation of his tape, he has the murder-victim roles reversed. A final definition of caul is pertinent here, as cauls are valued not only as protection against drowning, but can also "confer powers of second sight on their owners." The film suggests that Harry may be clairvoyant, although his clairvoyance is faulty because he believes so strongly in the power, reliability, and certainty of the rational, scientific "truths" of his technology. (pp. 29-30)
Whatever the intentional or unintentional frustrations we feel at the end of the film, the last scenes are consistent in focusing on Harry's character and in completing the visual motif of the caul. Harry's revision of the murder involves the recurring image of the caul. First, we glimpse in the hotel room the young man, the lover, in a clear plastic rainsuit, reminiscent of Harry's raincoat, which the young man wears presumably to keep the director's blood off of his clothes. Second, as Harry envisions the act of murder itself, the young man throws a large, clear plastic sheet over the director's head just before the stabbing; thus the caul has become part of the modus operandi of the murderer. The final shot of this sequence, one we saw briefly at the beginning of Harry's revision, is that of the bloody body of the director laid out on the hotel bed and completely covered by the plastic sheet like an aborted foetus in its sac. Whether this scene accurately portrays the murder is beside the point. The caul images are most appropriate in Harry's version of the murder because the cauls further convey his feeling of guilt and complicity in the crime.
Harry's surname, Caul, is skillfully translated into visual motifs that help us understand Harry as a lonely, withdrawn and paranoiac American. His desire to control reality through his technology is Harry's way of arranging the world so that he does not have to experience it. Like an artist, Harry wants to construct his own world. Harry's assistant even calls the taping of the couple "a work of art." When we first see Harry sitting down to his keyboard of recorders, he synchronizes his tapes like a concert pianist about to perform. Harry's one creative outlet, his one personal act of expression is his saxophone playing. Even here he plays it safe by joining in a jam session in his apartment with his phonograph, and by pausing at the right moments to accept the recorded applause.
The film ends with Harry systematically tearing up his wiretapped apartment, smashing a statue of the Virgin Mary (a bit of intrusive symbolism here) to assure himself that the icon is not hiding an electronic bug. The angry and frightened Harry never learns how or where his place is bugged. This last scene of destruction and desolation is reminiscent of the chilling conclusion to Coppola's The Godfather, Part II. Harry, like Michael Corleone, is alone in a room and in a world where everyone is a potential enemy. Harry has failed to control his experience or protect his privacy; even more important, he has aborted his own moral and emotional life. His surname has come to symbolize his arrested development. Like Randall Jarrell's ball-turret gunner, Harry can say, "From my mother's sleep I fell into the State / And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze." (pp. 30-1)
James W. Palmer, "'The Conversation': Coppola's Biography of an Unborn Man," in Film Heritage (copyright 1976 by F. A. Macklin), Vol. 12, No. 1, Fall, 1976, pp. 26-32.
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Coppola's insight into the [crime film] genre reveals itself in his handling of the film's structure, which features a gallery of criminal types with wit, charm, courage, and heroic stature (who never change or develop)—an achievement that can only by accomplished by limiting the film's sphere of life to the criminal element. Coppola certainly understood that if the world of crime obtruded into the realm of society's ordinary activities—if, for instance, the general citizenry were shot at—ordinary moral concerns would dominate our relationship to the figures in the film. But The Godfather is populated only by criminals and their relatives or by people corrupt enough to belong to their world…. The Godfather's power struggles and economic and social conflicts take place in the world of the gutter, but like most films depicting microcosms, the film also operates in the abstract realm, where the believers confront the pagans, and the upholders of order and government clash with the rebels who wish to destroy a hierarchical establishment that has brought a long reign of peace. (pp. 194-95)
The actual criminal business carried on by the Don and his successor Michael is typically vague. Late in the film the family decides to get out of the "olive oil" business and buy a Las Vegas hotel. We are surprised by their ever having been in olive oil, but the gambling operation is simply the genre's traditional enterprise of gangsters. Don Corleone, in fact, tries to keep them out of narcotics, but some accommodation has to be made to the new spirit of commercial enterprise rising in the national organization of crime families. Michael pledges to his girlfriend that in five years virtually all of the Corleone enterprises will be legal—and many critics view the film as a kind of businessman's allegory of American private capitalism. Yet the business operations remain unspecified; the board meetings are really just Sicilian-style family outings, not really for generating corporate strategies. What is symbolized, perhaps, is the nature of corporate competition. The family wars resemble nineteenth-century cutthroat commercial practices energetically pursued by the great "robber barons" of American industry and finance, who engaged in similar violence, but without machine guns. The Corleones are depicted as just on the verge of moving onto that level of American myth. No wonder the film engendered a sequel bringing the family's story up to date as a fulfillment of one aspect of the American Dream. (pp. 197-98)
Stanley J. Solomon, "The Life of Crime," in his Beyond Formula: American Film Genres (© 1976 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Harcourt, 1976, pp. 157-98.∗
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The first of the seven films [Coppola] has directed, Dementia 13, is not a horror-film classic nor an embarrassment. It has some thoroughly effective sequences, and it has some bland or belabored scenes. Basically, the photography is adequate; the acting, pedestrian; and the dialogue, functional. The film is only of any special interest because it is the first full-length film that Coppola directed.
With regard to what have been called his "personal" films, You're A Big Boy Now, The Rain People, and The Conversation, the first is by far the best. The pace of both The Rain People and The Conversation is too slow. The stylistic shuttlings in The Conversation are a mistake. The Rain People is done in only one style, a semidocumentary style (aided by flashbacks), but it does not help the film very much. The plots of both pictures are weak. The main characters in The Rain People are exceptionally interesting, but they are not fully developed. In The Conversation, the main character, though interesting in the early scenes, is delineated even less successfully.
You're A Big Boy Now, all in all, holds up well. Coppola was no more technically innovative in this film than he was in his other two personal films. But the influence (stronger perhaps than Coppola has acknowledged) of Richard Lester and other was salutary. It encouraged Coppola to employ a fast pace, which fit the material perfectly. There was enough looseness in the script to allow Coppola to incorporate "bits of business" (especially in the chase scenes) that emerged during the on-location filming. Yet, as was not the case with his other two personal films, Coppola finished the screenplay for this film before the shooting began; and this might well account, in part, for the superior quality of You're A Big Boy Now. It includes an almost endless stream of clever "touches," touches that create very interesting nuances in characters that at first appear to be strictly stereotypes.
Of the bigger productions that Coppola directed, Finian's Rainbow is a failure. Most of the music holds up nicely, but it already had for a good number of years before the movie was made. (pp. 176-77)
But the two Godfather films are decisive successes. As a profound metaphorical study of the United States or a keen realistic study of the Mafia, the first Godfather fails. Nonetheless, it builds on the material in the novel with extraordinary skill. The long opening sequence, the wedding reception, holds our attention completely. And from the time Michael becomes centrally involved in the family's affairs (after his father is shot and hospitalized) to the last scene, the film is almost continuously riveting. It is an outstanding gangster film. (p. 177)
[Despite] its flaws, [The Godfather, Part II] graphically presents the descent into hell—or at least into hollowness—of its main contemporary character, Michael. It dramatizes the early life of Michael's father, Vito Corleone, a time in which Vito leads his family to prosperity. But it also implies that the climb to prosperity created problems that Michael, when he becomes the head of the family, copes with successfully in terms of wealth and power, but unsuccessfully in terms of the unity and happiness of the Corleone family. We see, finally, the disintegration of the family. Michael at the end is all-powerful, and all alone.
Except for The Godfather, Part II, none of Coppola's work would encourage one to predict that Coppola will someday be seriously compared with such filmmakers as Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini. (pp. 177-78)
On the other hand, this still-young artist's work compares quite favorably with the work produced by Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, Peter Bogdanovich, Haskell Wexler, Martin Scorsese, and many others. There is a maturity of attitude governing the violence in the second Godfather film in particular that is depressingly absent in Bonnie and Clyde, Bullitt, and the films made by Sam Peckinpah and Martin Scorsese. For all its faults, The Conversation probes the contemporary scene in a deeper way than Joe or Medium Cool do. The Rain People, though not a success, is a far more honest "road picture" than Easy Rider and almost every other film of that genre. While full of fun, You're A Big Boy Now has a poignant, serious point that raises it above the slicker comedies of Mike Nichols and Peter Bogdanovich. (p. 178)
Coppola's moral awareness is clearly present in many of his films, beginning with You're A Big Boy Now. There are rich moral-social overtones in The Rain People. Coppola's musings about responsibility and about particular problems confronting the American woman (problems the women's liberation movement later focused on) serve as the foundation for this film. Then one comes to The Conversation, in which Coppola's valid moral observations are blunted by the flaws in the film. In The Godfather, Part II, however, the moral dimension blends beautifully with the other major elements in the movie. Though faulty and muddled at times, the moral outlook Coppola has brought to most of his films is one of the things that set him apart from many of his Hollywood contemporaries.
Another reason that Coppola deserves to be singled out for special credit concerns his adventurous probings of the possibility of emphasizing character more than plot in a medium that very much lends itself to enhancing plot more than character. Films thrive on completely stereotyped characters because such characters need no "explaining"—hence, do not cause any "delay" in the presentation of plenty of plot. So, too, the writer-director is pressured to present only that kind of stereotyped character—the cowboy, the detective, the racing car driver—who is frequently in motion.
Coppola, at his best, is an exceptionally fine creator of film characters. A host of only semi-stereotyped memorable characters appear in You're A Big Boy Now. All the main characters, and just about all of the minor ones, in The Rain People are unique and thoroughly interesting. Although Harry Caul in The Conversation proved too uptight, too elusive to allow Coppola to make him into a successful character delineation, Caul is still original and worth pondering. Coppola's portrait of General Patton is excellent. It also offers, in Patton's opening monologue, Coppola's successful attempt to present a character in an innovative way. In the two Godfather films, numerous characters break through the mere stereotypic. (pp. 178-79)
[Coppola] has been slow in bringing a steadily mature vision to his film efforts. It is, in fact, still too early to tell whether he has yet achieved such a vision. He has also depended too much on his ability to improvise and to ad-lib while making a movie; what evidence we have indicates that he does a better job when at least a great deal of the work is carefully thought out before he steps onto the set.
But, as a director, he is an exceptionally knowledgeable craftsman. As a writer, he has adapted and co-authored several fine screenplays. In The Godfather, Part II he did his best job thus far in presenting a vivid, meaningful story and many gripping, rich characterizations in one film. And, because that film is such a recent effort, it is certainly not foolish to hope for more such high-quality work from him. (p. 180)
Robert K. Johnson, in his Francis Ford Coppola (copyright © 1977 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1977, 199 p.
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Apocalypse Now is about Americans in Vietnam, and its themes are the perversion of the natural by the technological and the eerily sensuous beauty of war, in which the nightmarish all too easily becomes commonplace.
The images are not intended to be totally subjective or surreal; they are meant to illustrate the very real stages of demoralization—the rituals of defilement—that marked America's self-destruction in Vietnam. Apocalypse Now feels like one of those doom-laden pieces by the Grateful Dead that go on forever in a spreading luxuriousness of panic and dismay, leaving a residue of anxiety in your stomach while making you high at the same time. It's a two-and-a-half-hour acid-rock opera all in the same mood of ominously drifting horror, and finally it's just too pretentious. Like those sixties hipsters who boasted of their terrifying drug trips, Coppola is something of a show-off. He's eager to prove to us that he can handle any sort of weirdness or nihilism and make a work of art out of dread. Yes, there are passages of horrifying beauty in Apocalypse Now, but it's a heavy, self-important work, redundant and undramatic—more like a bad trip than art. (p. 87)
David Denby, "Hollow Movie," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1979 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 12, No. 33, August 27, 1979, pp. 87-9.
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[For] all of Coppola's emotional involvement in [Apocalypse Now], it is a remarkably cold film. Coppola undoubtedly felt strongly about the Vietnamese War, but the vehicle for his feelings is constructed in such a way that none of the characters can project them. Hence, the characters tend to be either animated cartoons (vide Robert Duvall's Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore) or ciphers (Brando's shadowy Kurtz)….
[If] two-thirds of the film are great, and one-third problematical, is not Apocalypse Now superior to most other movies? Of course it is. Certainly it is better than Alien or Moonraker or The Amityville Horror or Meatballs or The In-Laws or Dracula, to mention some of the current blockbusters. We must keep everything in perspective. Coppola is a major American director, whose work is mandatory viewing for every serious cineaste.
Is Apocalypse Now, then, better than The Deer Hunter? That is a tougher question…. In a sense, the films are almost dialectically antithetical. Where Apocalypse Now is cerebral, cold, and chic left, The Deer Hunter is visceral, hot, and gauche right. Apocalypse Now revels in the asexuality of drug-addicted hallucinations, while The Deer Hunter revels in a brand of macho-homoeroticism. Finally, Apocalypse Now tends to be macrocosmic whereas The Deer Hunter tends to be microcosmic. It follows that The Deer Hunter is an infinitely juicier entertainment than Apocalypse Now….
Now I am, if anything, less impressed by Apocalypse than I was at Cannes. Even the visual pyrotechnics of the first two-thirds now leave me cold. For me the great glory of the cinema is not its affinity for motion and light, but its affinity for life in the matrix of time and space. What I wish to see on the screen is the process of human development and interaction. As it is, there is no growth or enlightenment in Apocalypse Now. It is as if the whole film took place within five minutes of an LSD trip. Some people are into instant emotion and profundity. I am not. I prefer to watch the whole process as it develops within narrative and dramatic structures.
Andrew Sarris, "Heart of Coldness," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1979), Vol. XXIV, No. 35, August 27, 1979, p. 45.∗
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Viewed as a conventional updating of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" … "Apocalypse Now" looks like not much more than a cannibalization. For better and for worse, the movie confirms the idea that a work of art consists of local particulars. To use somebody else's work of art as a skeleton, you first have to turn it into a skeleton. Where "Apocalypse Now" is least successful (the last half hour), it seems to have been made by people who have read Conrad with their teeth. Where it is amazingly successful (the first two hours), it takes least from Conrad—or, rather, it takes subtly and delicately, for form and inspiration…. The movie is inconclusive not in the sense that it is meaningless but in the sense that it refuses to interpret itself as it goes along. Coppola at his best does not let us remove ourselves one safe step from what is happening on the screen to the meaning of what is happening on the screen. Coppola has the "weakness"—as "Heart of Darkness" ironically calls it—of Marlow: "the weakness of many tellers of tales who seem so often unaware of what their audience would best like to hear."…
I don't know what "Apocalypse Now" is in its entirety (and I am not sure Coppola does), but for most of the way it is the blackest comedy I have ever seen on the screen, taking its spirit and tone not from Conrad but from—this is the shortest way to say it—Michael Herr.
Herr's reporting from Vietnam (collected in his book "Dispatches") shows us a war that justifies Baudelaire's statement "The comic is one of the clearest Satanic signs of man": people living through Vietnam as pulp adventure fantasy, as movie, as stoned humor, as a collage that Herr once saw in a helicopter gunner's house, on a wall near a poster of Lenny Bruce—a map of the western United States with Vietnam reversed and fitted over California….
Herr also wrote the movie's narration…. Willard [the narrator] talks in the easy ironies, the sin-city similes, the weary, laconic, why-am-I-even-bothering-to-tell-you language of the pulp private eye. "I hardly said a word to my wife until I said yes to a divorce…. I'm here a week now, waiting for a mission, getting softer…. Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission. And for my sins they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service…."… Our first look at Willard is the classic opening of the private-eye movie: his face seen upside down, a cigarette stuck to his lip, under a rotating ceiling fan (all this superimposed on a dreamlike scene of helicopters brushing across the screen, a row of palm trees suddenly bursting into flame), and then the camera moving in tight closeup over his books, snapshots, bottle of brandy, cigarettes, Zippo, and, finally, obligatory revolver on the rumpled bedsheets. This guy is not Marlow. He is a parody—maybe a self-created one—of Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler's L.A. private eye. (p. 70)
With the first of its war scenes, "Apocalypse Now" becomes a horror comedy. It is what "Dr. Strangelove" might have been after the bomb fell, except that the comedy is not exaggerated and detached from suffering in a way that tells us we may safely laugh; it is realistic, and it exists simultaneously with realistic horror rendered with the physical brilliance and amplitude of "2001." The horror is not drained off, as it is by the easy absurdism of "The Deer Hunter," into a symbolic game; and the comedy is not drained off, as it is by the wordplay of "Catch-22," into a cute craziness. (p. 71)
Willard is not Marlow: his narration does not have a deep historical perspective, and it is spoken in a psychological state as numbed as the one he is in on the screen. He is not even Marlowe: he is not above the garish evil that surrounds him. Where Willard is pitiless, "Apocalypse Now" is not. The men on the boat, whom we get to know …, keep the movie from spiralling off into the impersonal, and we suffer for everyone in it. Though this is a matter of instinct, it seems to me that "Apocalypse Now" earns every second of its display of evil, because it has coherence, truthfulness, and conviction—up to a point.
The point is Kurtz. By the time Willard reaches Kurtz, Coppola has not made a movie version of "Heart of Darkness;" he has made his own movie—one in a class with Lina Wertmüller's "Seven Beauties," not just in its somewhat different use of comedy and horror but in its refusal to go for generalizations instead of particulars. Kurtz, the biggest, fattest temptation to generalization in English literature, has no more place in Coppola's movie than Raskolnikov or Othello. Yet he is the only character Coppola takes literally—right down to his name—from Conrad. Maybe Coppola thought he could show us not just evil but Evil. Maybe he could not think of any other reason to send Willard upriver. Most likely, he just fell in love with the romantic idea of Kurtz, Kurtz, Kurtz of the voice, the "bewildering," "illuminating," "exalted," "contemptible" voice.
Veronica Geng, "'Mistah Kurtz—He Dead'," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 29, September 3, 1979, pp. 70-2.
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[Apocalypse Now] ends in a welter of bathos that has to be seen to be believed, and that weighs down the whole work with its mournful freight of clutching, unappeasable ambition. But the film holds together well enough until it reaches its final muddle, and it has scenes and moments unequaled in recent European or American movies. Indeed, it has one long sequence so right and so powerful that it actually causes the confusion of the end, since it leaves Coppola with nothing to say. He cannot discover the promised "heart of darkness" in the murk of his conclusion, because he stumbled across it much earlier—earlier in the finished film and in the shooting—on a bright, noisy beach strewn with soldiers and helicopters, sheets of flame lighting up the background, as a plausible imitation of napalm devoured the jungle. He went on looking—writing, directing, editing—for the horror he had already found….
What has happened? For more than half its length Apocalypse Now comes off as a well-conceived and only slightly rambling film, designed to represent the lure of Vietnam for Americans. Vietnam, for Captain Willard, is a nightmare that cannot be forgotten, admirably rendered in an opening sequence which mingles helicopter blades with rotating ceiling fans, the noises of the jungle with the noises of technology, and Willard's state of mind with the state of that ravaged Asian country…. But for Kurtz, Vietnam does more…. He mounted successful, unauthorized operations, but finally, it seems, fell in love with his own ruthlessness, and lost all sense of boundaries.
He represents what Mary McCarthy once called the metaphysical element in the American involvement in Vietnam. Not the unwillingness to admit defeat, and not the doctrinal attachment to our system of production and consumption which McCarthy herself identified as metaphysical, but the enormous charm of the inexhaustible enemy, an endless, heartless darkness where a madman could go looking for victory, never finding it, and never having to give up the search.
The trouble is, Coppola has already invented a commanding character who represents all this better than Kurtz does. Lieutenant-Colonel Kilgore … is in charge of a cavalry regiment which has traded in its horses for helicopters. He wears an old-fashioned cavalry hat, as if he were in a western, and a dashing yellow foulard. He is a good officer, and cares for his men. (p. 17)
Kilgore makes a remark which has already been much quoted. "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." But what he says a moment later is less brittle, and more interesting. He describes an earlier napalm strike, which left no bodies, only a smell. "That gasoline smell," he says, musing. "It smells like…." He hesitates, looking for a comparison. Then he finds it, and the glint in [Kilgore's] eyes here, and the firm, friendly smile on his amiable face suggest realms of craziness beyond anything Brando's antics can muster, "… like victory." He nods, pleased with his formulation: just what he meant to say.
What Coppola has pictured here is the casual everyday lunacy of the war in Vietnam, and the unearthly, overwhelming power of American hardware….
But Coppola doesn't know when to stop, and he lets Willard continue into trouble, just as he lets Kurtz continue into bathos. "It wasn't just insanity and murder," Willard says, "there was enough of that to go around for everybody." And with that phrase, the trap closes and the luminous moment has gone. Coppola has let himself in for a search for something worse than insanity and murder. What he might have done, perhaps, is to suggest that Kilgore's lively craziness is quite different from a guilty, overwhelmed insanity which knows itself, and had Kurtz represent that. But he doesn't. Kurtz instead becomes the name for a hyperbole that can't be had, a bulky ghost lost in a forest of symbols, floundering among suggestions of romantic evil and primordial lusts.
There is something there, a sense of a condition beyond our power to name it, and when Willard, on his way to kill Kurtz, emerges red-eyed and mud-stained from a swamp, like a creature from an ancient, prehuman world, we glimpse, briefly, the film's other subject: the absolutely unimaginable, caught by miracle in a camera. But this is not a political subject, it has nothing to do with Vietnam, and Coppola in any case can only hint at it, a faint touch of the authentic in a pile of maudlin fakery. Insanity and murder ought to be more than enough even for the most ambitious of moviemakers. They take up more than enough of our history and they were enough for Coppola, before he himself caught the smell of ever-receding victory. (p. 18)
Michael Wood, "Bangs and Whimpers," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVI, No. 15, October 11, 1979, pp. 17-18.
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Toward the end of Francis Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," the camera casually, almost randomly, roams across a disheveled hut, passing a small number of scattered books lying in such a way as to suggest recent usage. One of these books is Sir James Frazer's "The Golden Bough." It is no accident. Indeed, this book holds the key to understanding the conclusion of the film that has baffled—and annoyed—most critics and will very likely be unsettling a number of moviegoers now that "Apocalypse Now" is entering general distribution….
If, as most critics have done, we look to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" for the answer, we will be … disappointed. True, the film does rely upon Conrad's novella for its characters and plot structure, but still it does not explain Mr. Coppola's ending: In the book, Marlow, a young ship's captain, is hired by a rubber firm to guide a boatload of greedy Europeans (Conrad calls them "pilgrims") up the Congo River to the conpany's central outpost, a camp run by an agent named Kurtz. Marlow discovers that this Kurtz has undergone a transformation during his many years of isolation, that the man of culture and ideas had become something primitive and barbaric, a veritable god among the natives…. But Marlow has not come to kill Kurtz; on the contrary, he does all in his power to retrieve the sickly agent back to England. In the Conrad novel, Kurtz's death is, in a sense, anticlimactic, resulting at least ostensibly from fever. Obviously "Heart of Darkness" has taken Mr. Coppola just so far; to follow the film to its conclusion we must turn to "The Golden Bough."…
[The evidence becomes strong] when in the following paragraph Frazer writes: "The mystic kings of Fire and Water in Cambodia are not allowed to die a natural death. Hence, when one of them is seriously ill and the elders think that he cannot recover, they stab him to death," (emphasis mine).
It is from Frazer and not Conrad that Mr. Coppola has borrowed the location, Cambodia, and the mode of death, stabbing. Perhaps more subtle, but no less telling, is the notion of Mr. Coppola's Kurtz as king of "Fire and Water"—Frazer's symbols which the director exploits and builds upon from the film's very first frame. Fire plays almost no role at all in "Heart of Darkness," whereas in "Apocalypse Now" it operates on several levels—firepower, napalm, burning villages.
Lastly, there is the issue of Kurtz's illness. In both Conrad and Coppola, Kurtz is physically ill; but only with the latter does this invoke the necessity of death (Willard tells us that Kurtz himself, his followers, the very woods wanted him to die), whereas in Conrad the villagers are outraged by the prospect of their loss. Ironically, the Kurtz of "Apocalypse Now" is considered "seriously ill" not only by his devoted followers but by the society that has produced him; for as the General and his staff say repeatedly over luncheon, Kurtz is "definitely insane." They too want Kurtz killed, and Mr. Coppola has thus nicely linked together two seemingly disparate cultures, the so-called civilized and barbaric, in a manner not unlike Conrad's, while arriving at an anthropological conclusion in perfect harmony with Frazer's own….
Of course, it can be argued that Mr. Coppola has failed to cinemagraphically convey the all-important operative myth. One who is familiar with Frazer would know that the death of the man-god springs not from malice but, as with the film's Montagnards, "from their profound veneration for him and from their anxiety to preserve him, or rather the divine spirit by which he is animated, in the most perfect state of efficiency."
But Mr. Coppola has not chosen to share this with his audience, even though it thoroughly explains why, when Willard emerges from the scene of regicide, he is greeted not, as one might expect, with fury, but with adoration. Willard is "the most perfect state of efficiency" to house the sickly king's divine spirit—he is white, he is crafty, he is strong. Willard is the one "whose life the fertility of men, of cattle, and of vegetation [note how the pagan fertility festival perfectly parallels the ascension of the young king] is believed to depend, and who are put to death, whether in single combat or otherwise, in order that the divine spirit may be transmitted to their successor in full vigour, uncontaminated by the weakness and decay of sickness or old age."
To understand "Apocalypse Now," specifically its long final scene, we must see that it rests upon not one work but two: the one for its plot structure, the other for its mythic structure. Where "Heart of Darkness" leaves off, "The Golden Bough" picks up. It is, in fact, a rather textbook formula, and this may explain why Mr. Coppola chose not to give away the full figure in the carpet. By not doing so, however, he has created a Sphinx that is neither man nor beast, and one that poses a riddle to all who come before it.
John Tessitore, "The Literary Roots of 'Apocalypse Now'," in The New York Times, Section 2 (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 21, 1979, p. 21.
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The Godfather is arguably the most important American film of the 1970s (especially if both parts are considered together) not only because it struck a deep, mythic chord in most Americans, but also because it demonstrated clearly that a highly popular film need not be superficial, that art and commerce need not be antithetical. (pp. 339-40)
Coppola is by no means a filmmaker, the way Cassavetes and Altman are. He makes movies, and thus we tend not to pay attention to his mise en scène. We shouldn't. He obviously wants us to concentrate on the mythic dimensions of his movies, not their cinematography and montage, not even their acting. Nevertheless, as a cinéaste Coppola can hold his own against any rivals. He takes real chances, artistically, and he succeeds. Gordon Willis's cinematography for both [Godfather] films manages to capture both the harsh light of southern Italy and the brown shadows of the American forties in direct contradiction to the sort of high-key lighting we would ordinarily expect in a film meant to attract massive audiences. Visually, both films really are private and personal.
This quality extends to the mise en scène. Coppola has a special distaste for closeups, preferring to set his actors in broad visual contexts for the most part. This too causes him to sacrifice some immediately visceral power for more atmospheric, intelligent ends. (pp. 343-44)
Coppola also showed an unparalleled attention to detail in the practical mise en scène of the Godfather films. It wasn't necessary. He would have got by with less. A few of us recognize the rightness of a car with wooden bumpers in 1945. (p. 345)
Meticulous attention to period detail is, at the least, nostalgic. Coppola makes something more of it here. He recreates times and places that many of us half remember. In the process he helps us to integrate the experience of our own pasts.
Similarly, a significant, if minor, reason for the films' success with audiences is their evocation of the forties and fifties. Coppola knows that what the world knows as tomato sauce Americans with Italian backgrounds call "gravy," and that the first thing you do upon entering the kitchen is to dip a piece of bread in the slowly simmering pot, as Sonny does when he goes to see his mother to break the news that Pop has been shot.
These thousands of details eventually add up to a powerful and affecting authenticity which measurably moves audiences, even if it doesn't call attention to itself. This profound—even reverent—reconstruction of a common past, together with an understanding of the inherent dilemmas of American family life that approaches tragic dimensions, and a political perspective that thoroughly dissects the myth of the American Dream and demonstrates with painful clarity that "we are all undesirables," makes The Godfather (both parts—all seven hours of it) the most significant American film since Citizen Kane. Charles Foster Kane and Vito Andolini Corleone, separated by thirty years, are brothers. Together they explain a great deal about this country—more than most books, more than most songs. They are the best evidence of the extraordinary power of the medium of film.
If Francis Coppola never made another film save The Godfather, his place in the history of American film would be assured. (pp. 345-46)
James Monaco, "Who's Talking? Cassavetes, Altman, and Coppola," in his American Film Now: The People, the Power, the Money, the Movies (copyright © 1979 by James Monaco; reprinted by arrangement with The New American Library, Inc., New York, New York), The New American Library, 1979, pp. 295-348.∗
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Apocalypse Now seeks less to meditate on the war and more to plunge us as viscerally into it as any movie possibly can. Structurally, it is a river movie the way Easy Rider is a road movie, a succession of events and set-pieces. The characters are quite simple; apart from Willard and Kurtz, hardly any register for more than a sequence….
The shot of the chopper in the tree quotes from a similar image in Aguirre, Wrath of God, a boat high above the river which looks like a mirage to the conquistadors. Visually—with its concentration on the immensity of the jungle, the strangeness and the intermittence of riverbank existence, the textures of the water, pristine vistas of pellucid sky through which warplanes streak and bomb, and a pervasive sense of blinding, stoned nightmare—Apocalypse Now draws on Herzog and probably on Deliverance as well. The results are nothing less than awesome—the movie frequently has the menancing visual clarity and the morbid luminescence of a De Chirico deserted plaza—and, besides all this, the film is very funny, too….
Coppola states that his goal was '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.' The first three he has captured as no one else ever has. However, what Coppola means by 'moral dilemma' is not especially clear, since, like the other recent movies about Vietnam, Apocalypse Now says nothing about why America got involved in the war. (p. 6)
[The images and sounds of Apocalypse Now seek to] capture the nature of American grandiosity, a pervasive sense of limitless power being wielded by cracked-open minds which have lost their compass, which have become caught up in a collective madness for its own sake. This is what Willard's journey reveals, just as Marlow's equivalent journey gradually brings to light the rapacities of colonialism. Apocalypse Now wants to make us experience these monstrosities, these distortions, as directly as film is capable of doing, leaving us to make of them what we will afterwards. (pp. 6-7)
The genuinely thorny matter of Apocalypse Now is the relationship between Kurtz and Willard. This becomes glaringly apparent in the way that the final segment of the picture shifts drastically from amphetamine action to portentous soliloquy as its prime stylistic motif. Kurtz is the principal speaker. He muses over an ethereal memory of his Midwestern homeland, quotes T. S. Eliot on the decline of the West, recounts a grotesque anecdote…. [We] never see Kurtz's men in action or any sign of their rapine other than the corpses and the heads strewn around his headquarters.
To a certain extent, this strategy is understandable. If Coppola showed Kurtz and his men running amok or even detailed the results of their activities, he would probably dilute the idea that what Willard experiences on the river is even worse than the crimes attributed to Kurtz….
But Kurtz does hew to Conrad's characterisation; Willard, on the other hand, has been strangely reconceived. Conrad's Marlow is a stolid, sane, plodding man despite a life spent in tropical regions. So it is believable that he would feel the lure of Kurtz and his legend; they are so foreign to his nature that they can tease his imagination and as a result gradually draw him into a confrontation with everything that he has suppressed in order to become stolid, sane, plodding. But Willard is emotionally and mentally unbalanced almost from frame one…. Willard is an undercover assassin for the American military who has already experienced Kurtzian madness, unlike Marlow. This makes it a trickier matter to accept the fascination which he, like Marlow, is supposed to feel the closer he gets to Kurtz and the more he hears about his legend.
Reading a classified dossier, Willard learns that one of Kurtz's primary offences in the eyes of the American high command was the unauthorised assassinations of some Vietnamese officials whom he considered Viet Cong double agents. These killings sound like just the sort of assignment which Willard has carried out; in the narration, he even speaks of having felt the last breaths of his own victims against his face. Perhaps we are supposed to surmise from this hint that Willard feels a sense of obscure kinship with Kurtz. Both have thrown off civilised restraints; both have committed brutal crimes. But Kurtz has gone infinitely further, and his reputed kingdom of horror tantalises Willard, makes him yearn to divine its profoundest secrets, especially what it feels like to shed all restraints. Within the film's frame of reference, this seems like the only possible catalyst for Willard's interest in Kurtz. Yet Apocalypse Now never articulates it. Why not? (p. 7)
One way of possibly teasing out an answer is looking back at his other films, in which two recurring figures are prominent: Godfathers and Loners. The first category includes, besides Kurtz, the crazed matriarch of Dementia 13, General George Patton in the Franklin Schaffner-George C. Scott film (which Coppola first scripted), Vito Corleone in The Godfather, and Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part II. Along with Willard, Harry Caul, the surveillance man of The Conversation, and Natalie Ravenna, the run-away housewife of The Rain People, are Coppola's prime examples of Loners. Both figures are intimately connected with families, which are frequently tribes of killers (the Corleone mafia family, Kurtz's army). The Godfathers rule these families almost as if they were demigods. The Loners try to deny family ties (Harry Caul), flee them (Natalie Ravenna), take them over (Michael Corleone), or annihilate them (Willard)….
In Apocalypse Now, Kurtz suggests a Godfather at bay, swollen with power yet unable to satisfy his deepest longings. Orson Welles' abortive version of Heart of Darkness evidently would have drawn parallels not only between Kurtz and Hitler but between Kurtz and Welles himself. Comparably, Coppola has said, 'I found that many of the ideas and images with which I was working as a film director began to coincide with the realities of my own life, and that I, like Captain Willard, was moving up a river in a faraway jungle, looking for answers and hoping for some kind of catharsis.' Even allowing for a certain amount of hubris, this sounds odd, for it is Kurtz, rather than Willard, who suggests a self-portrait. And catharsis of what?
Coppola has not only made movies about Godfathers; he has also become one. For years, he has been seeking to make himself Promethean, both as an artist and as a mogul…. Analogies between his ambitions and Kurtz's reveries spring readily to mind; Coppola, too, has his extended family and would be king, though a benevolent one….
[The] grandiosity of Coppola is a matter of colossal fantasies of art, fantasies which only a particular kind of film director can possibly hope to challenge. One imagines a film-maker like Coppola supposing that, with such power and wealth as he commands, vistas of artistic magnificence ought to lie within his grasp. Certainly, the scale of Apocalypse Now suggests an all-out assault on Greatness, Meaning, Art.
Yet art proves to be elusive, with or without the capital A, just as victory did to the nearly unbridled military might of America during the Vietnam war. The beached, inert figure of Kurtz bears witness to this frustration; like Coppola, he has gone the limit in trying to attain not just ecstasy but permanent ecstasy, yet it remains mockingly out of reach. This same intimation, that existence is fundamentally hollow and ultimately disappointing, afflicts all the major Coppola characters, and the sombreness of his cinematic vision bears further witness to it. When (in a departure from Conrad) Willard the Loner kills Kurtz the Godfather, we are meant to understand it as a mercy killing which releases Kurtz from unbearable loneliness and despair. Perhaps, symbolically, Coppola the Godfather is dying at the hands of Coppola the Loner, who might be his younger self from the days when he was merely an artist. (pp. 8-9)
Michael Dempsey, "'Apocalypse Now'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1979 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 49, No. 1, Winter, 1979–80, pp. 5-10.
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