Archive for Francis Ford Coppola

Axe and ye shall receive

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2022 by dcairns

Having taken care of my curiosity about DEMENTIA/DAUGHTER OF HORROR, I thought I might as well tick off DEMENTIA 13 as well — I’d failed to watch it on VHS when I rented it from Alphabet Video back in those days, put off by the pan-and-scan and muddy sound and so on. Now you can see it properly, or nearer properly.

Written and directed by Francis Coppola before he added the Ford, subtracted it again, and then re-added it, DEMENTIA 13 can be regarded as the first film in his informal Irish Trilogy. He followed it with FINIAN’S RAINBOW, you may recall. The third film in the trilogy, CUCHULAIN VERSUS VICTOR MCLAGLAN, has yet to occur to him.

Bits of DEMENTIA 13 are the work of Jack Hill, I believe, brought in to rescue the results of Coppola’s very short shoot, done on the back of Corman’s TOMB OF LIGEIA. I recall being told, though it may not be true, that Roger snapped a pencil when he saw Coppola’s edit, the strongest emotion anyone could recall him ever displaying.

Despite this, if it’s true, the film is rather accomplished. The acting inclines to the “over” variety — and I’m not even particularly talking about Patrick Magee. In scene one the scheming blonde femme fatale has to monologue about her problems and objectives, and that tendency to spell things out for the viewer creeps into most of the actors’ work, whether it’s by arching an eyebrow here or stressing a syllable there. Rather than being simple and truthful, they’re trying to tell the story. A lesson Coppola quickly learned.

The only performance that reaches the heights of entertaining badness is that of Karl Schanzer, cast as “Old Simon”, an aged poacher. Apparently no suitable actor could be found in Ireland so a 31-year-old schmoe from Connecticut is equipped with a bogus cookie-duster and turned loose with a stage brogue calculated to make Orson Welles in LADY FROM SHANGHAI seem like Brendan Gleeson. It’s not his fault, though. (Thinking about it, all Old Simon’s scenes may have been shot back in the States as pick-ups to add a bit more mayhem, which would account for the odd casting.)

I’m not usually sharp-eyed about continuity errors (but I spot mismatched angles) but when the scheming female dives into a pond in her underwear (to plant some dollies on a string — useless to ponder why) I did notice that her panties changed from white to dark grey (who knows what colour they really were?). And then, as I had guessed, we were into the fairly effective murder sequence Coppola filched and played on a psychedelic nightclub wall in YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW. So that was kind of a spoiler.

It’s a shame to lose Luana Anders, though, she’s the most interesting character — even though she’s a bitch, she has clear goals and is an active schemer. We’re supposed to empathize with the nice girl, Mary Mitchel, but she’s not given any particular needs or wants for us to get interested in.

Now that I can see and hear the film clearly, it’s striking how generally elegant and tasteful Coppola’s filming is. This is not the work of a kid drunk with the possibilities of film, floundering in all directions — he knows what he wants and why he wants it.

One problem: I’m two-thirds of the way through and there are two main suspects. I feel like I won’t be at all surprised whichever of them it is. And I won’t be surprised if it’s somebody else, though I might feel cheated as we’ve had a good look at the killer in silhouette and he’s obviously male, not old, not Patrick Magee. So let’s see if the movie, patterned largely on PSYCHO but with traces of the gothic and LES DIABOLIQUES, can pull off a legit twist.

(We might not expect it to, since Coppola sold the idea to Corman with an improvised set-piece scene, and then concocted a story to go around it, like that weird collar Kermit the frog wears.)

OK, fifteen minutes from the end there’s a big reveal, in which suspicion is lifted from one of the main characters. At this point I decided it was definitely him, on the basis that his being guilty would have the strongest impact on the heroine. (I reached the same conclusion with JAGGED EDGE, the first version of Joe Erzterhaas’ only story.) And I count this as a victory because five seconds later the movie revealed that it was indeed him.

(But there might still be another twist in store.)

Yay! Another twist! Not exactly clear how the first twist is invalidated, it just is. Forget you saw the incriminating clue. But the ending has some strong moments even if it’s wildly unsurprising in plot terms — Patrick Magee turns out to be THE HERO of the film — mud and blood are photographically identical in b&w and so the film is able to deliver some powerful images of abjection without bringing down the censor’s blade — it’s quite a nice tale, on a par with Hammer’s DIABOLIQUES knock-offs, though those sometimes had actual surprise endings.

DEMENTIA 13 stars Koloth; Ellen Sands; Hank (uncredited); Script Supervisor (uncredited); The Chevalier du Balibari; Eileen O’Leary; and Schlocker.

Southern Discomfort

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2021 by dcairns

END OF THE ROAD (1970) is certainly an extraordinary thing. Terry Southern adapting a John Barth novel (to Barth’s eventual dismay) and Aram Avakian directing it.

Avakian isn’t a well-known name: he only directed four films. I enjoyed his laid-back thrillers, COPS AND ROBBERS and 11 HARROWHOUSE. I haven’t seen LAD: A DOG, made eight years before this. The guy never seemed to get any momentum going.

But as an editor he was a star: he cut JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY, THE MIRACLE WORKER, LILITH, MICKEY ONE, and Coppola’s YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW. All of them dazzling works from a vision-mixing standpoint. He’d periodically break out of cutting into directing and then get shoved back into the editing suite. After this, Coppola got him to cut THE GODFATHER but Robert Evans fired him — Evans’ memoir says Avakian was going behind Coppola’s back, saying the film wouldn’t cut. Evans had some rushes assembled, proving him wrong, and showed him the door. I find this unlikely. Avakian was, after all, Coppola’s ally going into production, so a scenario where Evans fires a Coppola crony is readily explained by Evans wanting more influence on the film. Evans lies quite a lot elsewhere in his book.

Anyway, END OF THE ROAD shows an artistic ambition not on display in the nice thrillers. And I’m guessing not in the dog movie. The montage — a pyrotechnic, hallucinatory phantasmagoria of abstraction and dissonance, unsettles and dazzles. The performances go right to the edge, then over it. Stacey Keach and James Earl Jones who should by rights be our points of entry and identification, swing wildly through a dizzying repertoire of funny voices and bizarre line readings. Keach is the catatonic patient quicky revived by Jones’ unorthodox methods/madness.

As screenwriter/producer, Southern is on particularly indulgent form. I haven’t read Barth — I feel like I should now — but Southern appears to have transformed an early, comparatively naturalistic book into something a little more like later Barth, but a lot more like mid-period Southern (the film makes me wish Avakian had been entrusted with The Magic Christian).

Keach and Jones’ funhouse lunacy — it’s a toss-up which of the two is more disturbingly demented — is joined with a terrific, naturalistic performance from Dorothy Tristan, and a creepy one from the excellent Harris Yulin, who seems to be trying to bridge the chasm of performative styles on display. It’s absolutely never boring. Profoundly alienating, technically stunning, infuriatingly incoherent, yes. Boring, no.

What put me off was the glib, jokey end-note, which follows a horrific botched abortion scene — the swerve into tragedy after surreal farce was effective and I could go with it, but the cheap wink at the end ruined that — it’s of a piece with Southern’s other repulsive violations of taste/the audience apparently elsewhere in his oeuvre, particularly the comic treatment of the heroine’s suicide in the novel Blue Movie and the film THE LOVED ONE — both motivated by out-of-character nastiness from the male lead, both ghastly — both moments that really make you wonder about the guy.

I recall a student making a short film in his first year which rather upset everybody, and he was kind of proud of himself, when a colleague, who’s more combative than me, told him he had to take responsibility for the emotions he was evoking, and they had to achieve something. Just showing that he could make us uncomfortable wasn’t a positive achievement in itself. Possibly a lesson Southern and Avakian needed to learn. Avakian perhaps did.

Gordon Willis shot it (Michael Chapman operating) and it looks AMAZING — his first feature and he’s already doing his toplight thing. Robert Q. Lovett cut it, a future Coppola guy. FFC essentially crewed THE GODFATHER from this movie.


Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2021 by dcairns

I’d heard something or other about THE COTTON CLUB ENCORE, Francis Ford Coppola’s re-edit of his embattled 1984 production, but it was Meredith Brody in Bologna I guess two years back who said it was much more interesting and worthwhile than all the various tinkered versions of APOCALYPSE NOW, and this planted a seed. I wanted to see it. Finally I bought a copy.

I always rather liked the original — it was the first Coppola I was old enough to see at the movies, I guess.

I can’t be sure of my memories of it, but I think it actually played better shorter. Coppola thinks the new cut plays shorter despite being longer, because the story’s clearer. But clarity isn’t everything. Sometimes puzzlement is more engaging. And anyway I’m not convinced this version is any clearer. Still, I’m glad to have seen it because it has more musical numbers.

Coppola got embroiled in the film in the first place because producer Robert Evans couldn’t figure out how to pull off a movie about the Club with Richard Gere, who refused to play a gangster, would only play a musician, the problem being that no white musicians played the Club. I hate to say it, but Coppola didn’t really solve that problem. Gere glides around the outskirts of the story, vanishing to Hollywood to become a star offscreen, romancing a gangster’s moll, and the movie offers us no reason to care about these characters, cute though they are, well though they wear Milena Canonero’s clothes. In 1984 I probably wasn’t aware that this plotline was a Methuselah-old pulp standard, one which Tarantino would feel the need to explode in PULP FICTION with the Travolta-Thurman story.

I did notice, though, that Gregory Hines and Lonette McKee’s love story (now promoted to the cover image/poster) was actually ABOUT something, and connected to the Cotton Club, even if it didn’t quite have all the moving parts a story needs to have. The Hines character’s relationship with his brother (real-life sibling Maurice Hines) added some complication.

Gere’s character also has a brother, played by Nic Cage — whose storyline which does manage to involve the club, and ends dramatically. But we never learn Gere’s reaction to the conclusion of that yarn, which shows just how uninterested in him the film is.

Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne (who Coppola hired over Evan’s furious objections: “No Munsters!”) improvised a great scene, the standout in the film, and had Coppola been on top form or able to work with some freedom, they could and should have been invited to improvise a half dozen more. Those guys should have been in more movies together.

The other best non-musical scene is with Laurence Fishburne, though his character’s arguing that he doesn’t have any choice but to be a gangster because society is racist… well, his character seems to believe it, and he argues it with panache. It’s good when characters can give a good account of themselves.

In building a musical that isn’t a musical (no bursting into song except during performance scenes) that connects to the social events of the time, Coppola seems to have taken CABARET as his model — understandably, since the Bob Fosse beat him to a Best Director Oscar in 1973. My dim memory tells me that the balance of songs and story in CABARET is much more successful, the two seem genuinely planned to go together whereas ENCORE has some songs which, lovely though they are, just happen. The strongest deja vu moment was when Fishburne and his gang beat up a nasty Club employee — it felt weirdly like the Nazis beating up the bouncer. A strange connection to make.

Coppola films some of the dancing extremely well, and other bits he hacks up into closeups of feet and stuff. Even aged seventeen I knew that was wrong. And there are lots of MONTAGES, usually a sure sign of a film in trouble. They’re very pretty, but they’re period pastiche filmmaking designed to glue together a disjointed narrative.

It’s a shame to feature mob boss Dutch Schultz so prominently and not include his last words (“A boy has never wept nor dashed a thousand kim…”) but in fairness its difficult to see how the authors could have worked them in meaningfully. Intercut them with Cab Calloway’s scat singing?

The elusive onstage/offstage conversion does finally happen, though, right before the end creds (which are beautiful, a bunch of spare montage elements) — Coppola intercuts a stage number with “real” action at Grand Central Station and blends the two into something really magical. Coppola’s best endings are usually based on cross-cutting, aren’t they?

THE COTTON CLUB stars Zack Mayo; Josephus; Ellen Aim; Louise Little; Lou Landsky; Sam Starr; H.I. McDunnough; Louis B. Mayer; Herman Munster; Specialty Dancer – ‘Beale Street Blues’ (uncredited); Delores Dodge; Billy Bump/Billie Bump; Jimmy Jump; R.M. Renfield; Kane; Momo; Baby Houseman; Joe – the Hustler; Gloria Capulet; 1st Sgt. Braxton Rutledge; Dicky Speck; Gus Fring; Grandpa Booker; Mary Corleone; and Stokely Carmichael.