Tag Archives: Francis Ford Coppola

Apocalypse Now Redux (2001)

Americans are never more narcissistic than when they make films examining their own narcissism.

So it made sense for Francis Ford Coppola to use Heart Of Darkness to frame his epic about the war in Vietnam. White men traveling to central Africa and finding nothing but a reflection of the genocidal heart and soul of western civilization? What can be more American than that?

Heart of Darkness is a work of genius, but it is clearly a work of its age. As much as he deplored the savagery and hypocrisy of King Leopold and the Belgians in the Congo, Joseph Conrad was a white European writing in 1899. In other words, he was a racist. As writers like Edward Said and Chinua Achebe have observed, Conrad dehumanizes Africans, seeing them almost exclusively as a blank slate on which Europeans, whether for good or evil, have written their history. 1979 is not 1899. For Apocalypse Now to succeed on the highest level, Francis Ford Coppola, a contemporary of the Civil Rights and Third World Liberation movements, would have to transcend Joseph Conrad’s blinkered views on race. He would have to see the Vietnamese as conscious historical actors, subjects not objects, as human beings not simply as a yardstick to judge the United States government and the United States military.

Apocalypse Now is a staggering technical achievement, a highpoint of cinematic artistry that may never again be reached, either by Americans or by else. But is it a work of genius? I would say no. Dennis Grunes is correct. The film is a muddled cop out.

APOCALYPSE NOW (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979; 2001)

How much Coppola’s decision to work with the fascist John Milius — who also wrote Dirty Harry and Red Dawn — and not, for example, an anti-imperialist screenwriter can be debated. But of this much you can be sure.  Apocalypse Now is no Battle of Algiers, a collaborative effort between Gillo Pontecorvo and veterans of the Algerian War of Liberation. On the issue of race, Francis Ford Coppola, an Italian American born in 1939, is no more enlightened than Joseph Conrad, an Anglo Pole born in 1857. At no point in the over 3 hours of the directors cut of Apocalypse Now Redux do Coppola and Milius ever flip the script on Heart of Darkness. In the end, Coppola’s Vietnamese, who conducted a sophisticated anti-imperialist struggle against the most powerful military the world had ever seen, never speak. They are, like Conrad’s Africans, or Kipling’s Burmese, tribal primitives, merely a reflection of the white man’s desire to live “east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst.”

Nevertheless, I think Dennis Grunes misses something important about Apocalypse Now. More accurately, he briefly raises the issue then dismisses it. “If Coppola’s aim was to turn Heart of Darkness into jungle farce,” he says, “bull’s-eye.” Bulls-eye indeed. To judge from everything I’ve read and heard, from both mainstream and radical history, and from eye witness accounts, the ten year American occupation of Vietnam as “jungle-farce” is precisely the point. What makes American imperialism different from French or British imperialism, what a good American artist would want to add to Joseph Conrad’s great short novel, would be the music of that violent, doped-out carnival that the United States had become in the 1960s and 1970s. For Joseph Conrad, Belgian imperialism was a “whited sepulcher,” a slaughterhouse covered up by an attractive, whitewashed facade, the terminal state of western and Christian hypocrisy. The ethereal Aurore Clément in the much criticized interlude on the French rubber plantation is a tip of the hat to Conrad’s original aesthetic.

But for the United States, the country that gave us Charles Manson and Altamont, Richard Nixon and the Chicago Police Riot, Coppola needed an entirely new vision. Here I think he succeeds. Take the famous sequence of the helicopter attack helicopter attack. Robert Duvall’s insane, California surfer colonel is justly celebrated as one of the great moments of American cinema. Dennis Hopper’s murderous boy next door in David Lynch’s overrated Blue Velvet doesn’t even come close. But there’s a deeper level to Coppola’s portrayal of the First Airmobile Cavalry. Colonel Kilgore and his men are wearing the famous “Black Hats” worn by members of the Iron Brigade, a celebrated unit of the Army of the Potomac during the United States Civil War. But they attack the village at the mouth of the Nung River to the sound of Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, the same music DW Griffith used in his racist film Birth of a Nation. The Iron Brigade has now become the Ku Klux Klan. The army that fought the slave power is now fighting for empire. American patriotism rides to the tune of Hitler’s favorite composer, “Mr. Lincoln’s Army,” now a technologically superior “master race,” swoops out of the sky to slaughter women and children, to rip up an ancient civilization, and replace it with t-bones, beer, and the Beach Boys.

And of course a highly trained scholar of world cinema like Francis Ford Coppola would have done this consciously.

While some of the scenes Coppola added to the original theatrical release may indeed slow down the film’s narrative drive, they also add to our understanding of the film as a whole. The sequence with the Playboy bunnies at the destroyed Medevac made me cringe, and I’m not even a feminist. But it’s clear that at least part of the reason “Clean,” Larry Fishbourne, shot up the sampan “Chief” stops on the river for an inspection is sexual frustration. Clean, a teenage boy and a virgin, is the only member of the crew who doesn’t get laid. Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore came off like a badass in the theatrical release. In the Redux version he just seems nuts. Chef’s fluent French, which is a lot clearer in the Redux version, reminds us that the crew of Chief’s swift boat is an elite crew. With a French chef and a famous surfer, it’s as representative of “blue” America as Michael Cimino’s east European steel workers in The Deer Hunter are representative of “red” America. The long sequence at the French rubber plantation may indeed be jarring, but it’s a jarring reminder that the war in Vietnam was, after all, a war for empire. When the articulate French fascist played by Christian Marquand talks about Điện Biên Phủ and the Henri Martin Affair, it’s Coppola’s admission that his narrative and aesthetic never quite address the history of French and American imperialism in Southeast Asia.

Just about the only thing about Apocalypse Now Redux that still never quite works is Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Colonel Kurtz. Why hire a great actor like Brando to play the enigma at the heart of the film’s anti-climax? Indeed, by the time Willard finally gets to Kurtz’s compound deep in the jungle at the border of Vietnam and Cambodia, we’ve already broke the 3 hour mark. To explore Kurtz in depth would turn Apocalypse Now into a mini-series. So Brando pretty much just mumbles. What’s more, the Gothic horror, the primitive savagery in the last half-hour are perversely racist and imperialist. Kurtz throws Chef’s head into Willard’s lap. Willard screams in horror, something he never did while Kilgore’s Huey attack ships were slaughtering women and children at the mouth of the Nung River. Coppola has become an apologist. Kurtz “going native” is scarier than the idea of technologically state of the art mass murder.

The most irritating part about Apocalypse Now, whether in the theatrical or Redux versions, remains Captain Willard’s voice over. If anything, it’s gotten worse with age. Willard’s description of the crew of Chief’s swift boat as “rock n rollers with one foot in the grave” may have made some sense in 1979. Now it just makes you groan. The inane voice over adds nothing to our understanding of Colonel Kurtz, and, indeed ,may subtract from it. Are there CIA operatives who speak in the noir hipster way Willard speaks? There may be. But I’ve never heard one. Conrad’s Marlowe, stodgy, unreliable narrator though he may be, still draws us into the world of a British river boat captain in the Belgian Congo, his language accurately mirroring the language of a merchant seaman. Had Willard been a believable covert operative the voice over might have given Apocalypse Now an added dimension. Here it’s just annoying. Let Apocalypse Now Redux II just cut it out altogether. If Ridley Scott did it for Blade Runner, surely Coppola can manage it here.

Patton (1970)

It’s not hard to imagine what the opening of Patton must have looked like in 1970.

The war in Vietnam War is lost. The army is falling apart. Officers get “fragged.” Racial tension is at an all time high. Military discipline is at an all time low. Drug use is rampant. You’re sitting in your seat at the movie theater. It’s General Buck Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove. Behind him is an enormous American flag. The speech is an unabashed ode to militarism and American exceptionalism. Surely, you think, this is satire, the kind of thing that, if you jumped into your time machine, you might see on the Steven Colbert show. But no. The three hour movie that follows treats the fascist creep George S. Patton like a hero, a problematic hero to be sure, but a hero nonetheless. This isn’t a B-movie like the hilariously inept Green Berets by John Wayne. It’s a big budget, mainstream, well-acted film based on a script by Francis Ford Coppola. What the hell is going on?

A lot of people in 1970 saw Patton as a slap in the face to the anti-war movement, as the voice of the silent majority. Richard Nixon is reported to have had frequent screenings in the White House, often to psych himself up before another bombing. Others saw George C. Scott’s portrayal of Patton is deep, complex satire, as a portrait of a man so out of touch with modernity that it drove him crazy. Robert Duvall would reprise Scott’s performance 8 years later in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” he would say to the cheers of conservatives and to the horrified appreciation of liberals. Both movies are complex, and often contradictory mixtures of liberalism and militarism. If Apocalypse Now has Colonel Kilgore and the even more unbalanced Colonel Kurtz, it also has Captain Willard, a complex man struggling to remain sane in the Vietnamese madhouse. Patton, in turn, has Karl Malden’s Omar Bradley, the “soldier’s general,” a humble man who seems to embody the values of the New Deal. The United States high command sends Willard to kill Kurtz when he went too far. In Patton, the solution is a bit less extreme. He’s rigidly monitored, kept on a short leash by the adults in Washington and London, by Eisenhower, Roosevelt, and Harold Alexander. He was a capable tank commander, the film seems to say, one who never had any political influence.

Patton is neither pro nor anti-war, liberal nor conservative. It’s neither patriotic nor a send up of American exceptionalism. It is, rather, a portrait of the military man as a neoliberal corporate executive, as a “job creator,’ as a maverick who blows into a stodgy old company full of stuffed suits and makes it profitable, as Donald Trump with 3 stars and a pearl handled revolver. Patton opens in North Africa in the immediate aftermath of the German victory at Kasserine Pass. The United States Army, which in in North Africa to lock down France’s old colonies before the “natives” get any ideas about declaring their independence, is in bad shape. Discipline is lax. Moral is low. It is, in short, the same United States army that, in 1970, was falling apart in Vietnam. Patton, like a good corporate “efficiency expert,” blows in like a cyclone, not only restoring traditional military discipline, but subjecting the troops to a series of rigid, yet arbitrary rules designed to make them feel insecure enough to work as hard as they would if they were in the private sector. He even dismisses a brigade commander on the spot and replaces him with his second in command. Think Donald Trump in The Apprentice. “You’re fired.”

Throughout the film, George S. Patton is an anti-communist and a Russophobe, a quality that constantly gets him into trouble with the Allied High Command. The Russians, after all, are the ones doing most of the heavy lifting to beat Hitler. Piss them off too much, and they might just negotiate a separate peace with the Germans. But Patton’s real nemesis is not Russian. He’s British Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery, the hero of the Battle of El Alamein. Patton is Coke. Montgomery is Pepsi. Patton is General Motors. Montgomery is Ford. If the Englishman and the American aren’t allies, they’re not exactly enemies either. Rather, they’re two corporate CEOs, two “job creators” whose rivalry pushes both their armies onto achievements they wouldn’t have achieved under a man like Beddell Smith or Omar Bradley. It wasn’t democracy that beat Hitler, the film tells us. It was capitalism.On the surface, Patton is liberal, if liberal, as Arthur Schlesinger defines it, means “the bureaucratic state putting limits on capitalism.” Patton is a skillful tank commander, but he, like corporate America in general, is given to excess. He slaps a soldier suffering from “shell shock.” The stuffed suits in Washington and London put him on probation. We agree with General Eisenhower, who wrote Patton and labeled his action as “despicable,” but we also understand why the Germans are so confused that the American government would relieve one of its best generals of his command for slapping a nobody. Wasn’t Steve Jobs more important than any one of the low level Apple employees his subjected to his abuse? Proles are proles, after all, and job creators are job creators. It’s a trade off, the movie tells us, between a brilliant, if abusive and eccentric man, and the company (the nation) as a whole. Thank God, it concludes, the United States government back then knew how to strike the right balance.

But like all good propaganda, the devil is in the details. More importantly, it’s in what’s not mentioned at all. Karl Malden portrays Omar Bradley as a good democrat who cares about his rank and file troops and resents Patton’s showboating. The real Omar Bradley was nothing of the sort. While it’s true that his style was more self-effacing than Patton’s, he was also one of the most powerful military men in American history, a master at bureaucratic infighting who was deeply involved in some of the dirtiest covert operations of the Cold War. He would have undoubtedly laughed at, yet appreciated Malden’s “aw shucks” caricature. Then there’s the Russians, or, to be more accurate, the Soviet Union. On the surface, the film appears to tackle the issue head on. Patton is a reactionary and a Russophobe. He’s rebuked by the Allied high command. But it’s a clever slight of hand. The film portrays the landing at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge as key events rather than the sideshow they really were. “We can still lose this war,” Patton observes when the Germans make their last great counteroffensive in the Ardennes. He forgets to mention who they’d lose it to, not to Hitler, but to Stalin. The Soviet Union had won the war in 1943.

The Russians make a brief, and comical appearance at the end of Patton. In reality, the invasion of Normandy was a small time affair compared to the Battle of Stalingrad, and, compared to the Battle of Kursk, the Battle of the Bulge was a mere skirmish. The United States wasn’t in the war to beat Hitler. They were in the war to keep Stalin from marching all the way to the English Channel and to keep Algeria from declaring its independence. But it really doesn’t matter. As Patton, correctly, observes, the traditional all out war is a thing of the past. The Soviet Union would lose the Cold War, not to Patton the tank commander but to Patton the neoliberal corporate executive, the very thing he seems so afraid of becoming. Coppola’s script purports to be a fictionalized biography of a colorful misfit, of a man profoundly out of touch with the march of history. He was anything but. Just like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, George C. Scott’s George S. Patton was the future, and, just like that shell shocked soldier in Sicily, we were all about to get slapped.

The Godfather I (1972) The Godfather II (1974) The Godfather III (1990)

Along the James River in Virginia, you can find dozens of colonial era plantation houses, a legacy of the British aristocracy transplanted to North America. Dutch patricians founded a very similar type of social order in New York. Newport, Rhode Island was built by Gilded Age money. An estate in the Hamptons recently sold for 145 million dollars. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has pointed out that the Walton family is worth more money than the bottom 42 percent of Americans combined.

For Margaret Thatcher, perhaps the most important politician of the second half of the 20th Century, this is exactly how it should be. “There is no such thing as society,” Thatcher said. “There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” On the other end of the political spectrum, progressive historians like Vernon Louis Parrington and Howard Zinn have argued that the history of the United States can be defined as the struggle for democracy against conservatism. Both rooted for democracy against conservatism, for “society” against the “superior individual,” for the collective effort of slaves and proletarians against their masters.

The first two installments of the Godfather saga came out in 1972, and 1974. After the anti-Vietnam-War movement, the Civil Rights movement, black nationalism, and feminism, most Americans in the early 1970s probably thought that democracy had finally triumphed, that it was only a matter of time before the United States realized its egalitarian potential. But the ruling class had other plans. The coup in Chile, the Powell Memo, the beginning of lavishly funded right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the early 1970s was also the time when the American ruling class began to feel so uneasy about the upsurge of democracy in the 1960s that they decided to crush it for good.

They largely succeeded. Bushes, Clintons, Kochs, Waltons, the DeVos family, Mike Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Margaret Thatcher’s wildest dreams have come true. The United States is no longer governed by democratic, or even democratic republican institutions, but by a network of great families, corporations, and wealthy invidivduals. While Francis Ford Coppola’s motivations for putting Mario Puzo’s novel on film were, perhaps, aesthetic and moral, not historical or political, he has, nevertheless, created the great epic about the feudal reality that underlies the illusion of American democracy.

The Godfather is not just a gangster film or a film about Italian immigrants. For that go to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas or The Public Enemy by William A. Wellman. The Corleones are, of course, Italian immigrants and mobsters, but they’re a lot more. Like the Waltons, the DeVoses, the Clintons, or the Bushes, they are one of the great aristocratic families who manage the United States from behind the scenes. They are above the law. They can kill with little or no fear of jail. They are wealthy beyond the comprehension of ordinary Americans. But they are also under a constant threat from other great, aristocratic families. Coppola’s gangsters are feudal princes, but this is not Louis XIV’s Versailles. It’s the War of the Roses transplanted to New York, Sicily, Havana, Las Vegas, and Lake Tahoe.

There are two recurring social movements in The Godfather and The Godfather II, the aristocratic court, and the coup. While the film takes place mainly in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, there are no democratic institutions to be seen. There are no public schools. People don’t vote. The mob controls unions, but we never see union organizers. We never see a strike. There are no town meetings or veterans organizations. The world of The Godfather is the old feudal, European world transplanted to the United States, and capitalism, we learn, is better managed by a benevolent King than it is by elected representatives.

The Godfather opens at the wedding of Vito Corleone’s daughter Connie, or, to be more accurate, at Vito Corleone’s court. It’s a day that the Don, the Godfather, cannot refuse a request from a supplicant. The first supplicant is Amerigo Bonasera. He has come to the king because the democratic state has failed him. His daughter was beaten and raped by three men,who, subsequently, beat the rap in court. Don Corleone is impatient with Bonasera’s court etiquette, but agrees to have one of his soldiers take revenge.  Corleone, played by Marlon Brando, is not a Goodfellas style thug. Everything about him says “courtly, old world, aristocratic.”

The next movement is a coup. Social change in the Godfather doesn’t come about through elections or collective, social movements, but through violent, elite conspiracies. Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo, a narcotic trafficker needs political support, those politicians that the Don keeps in his pocket “like so many nickles and dimes.” Unlike Amerigo Bonasera, Sollozo knows proper court etiquette. But he’s no humble supplicant. Sollozo’s offer is also a threat. If Corleone turns him down, he will make an alliance with one of the other great aristocratic families. Corleone is a violent mobster, but, like any benevolent prince, he only uses violence to maintain a rough social order, the justice that the state can’t or won’t maintain itself. He has no stomach for narcotics. What’s more, far from keeping politicians in his pocket like so many nickles and dimes, Don Corleone knows that if he steps over a certain line, he will lose his political support. So he rejects Sollozo. Sollozo, in turn, attempts to mount a coup. He lines up his own political support, a corrupt police captain. He makes an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Corleone in the hope that he can make an alliance with his son, Sonny, or, if that fails, join up with the other crime families to push the Corleones out of their dominant position.

Enter Michael Corleone. While Vito Corleone represents New Deal Capitalism tempered by old world values, Michael Corleone represents neoliberalism. The assassination attempt on Vito Corleone almost succeeded because Vito assumed there was a set of conventions, a line you didn’t cross, a respect for the private world outside of business. Michael Corleone knows that things have changed, that “there is no society, only individuals and families.” If you can get away with it, it’s moral. There are no duties, and there is no court etiquette, only treachery and violence. The Godfather I ends with Michael Corleone staging his own coup, taking out the families who supported Sollozo and solidifying the position of his own family. It also ends with his increasing his power over the Corleone family itself. Loyal consigliere Tom Hagen is demoted. Disloyal family members aren’t banished or demoted. They’re killed. Similar to the way Richard Nixon undercut the State Department by increasing the power of the National Security Adviser, Michael Corleone has ripped apart the traditional social conventions of the Corleone family and made himself dictator.

The Godfather II further expands on the differences between Vito Corleone and Don Corleone. Vito Corleone, like many oligarchs, comes from a humble background, a family in Sicily that had been almost entirely annihilated by a tyrannical crime lord. Coppola’s depictions of Sicily at the turn of the 20th Century are remarkable. The island is almost entirely militarized. Men walk around with rifles and bandoliers. Houses have walls and guard towers. Business is carried out at the point of a gun. On the surface, nothing could be more different from the town of Corleone in Sicily than the New York of the 1920s. But appearances are deceiving. Underneath the swirling, teeming streets of Little Italy, the old order has already established itself. Don Fanucci, a local princeling, rules over the local population by terror and blackmail. Merchants who don’t pay him a percentage of their profits have their lives ruined. Vito Corleone is fired from his job at a grocery store to make way for one of Fanucci’s relatives. Finally Vito, who’s offended at the idea that Fanucci exploits other Italians, organizes yet another coup. He assassinates Don Fanucci and takes his place, replacing Fanucci’s coarse exploitation with a benevolent paternalism that reflects New Deal Capitalism. In one scene, for example, he acts more like a democratic ward boss than a vicious killer, helping a woman save her apartment when a greedy landlord tries to have her thrown out into the street. We begin to see the origins of the benevolent monarch who we met at the beginning of the first film.

At the same time, in a parallel narrative, we see the career of Vito’s son Michael. If Vito Corleone represented the capitalism of the New Deal then Michael Corleone, while not quite practicing the Ayn Rand style of “fuck the poor capitalism,” is a lot closer. He joins a cabal of American oligarchs to set up under a business friendly, and, thus, libertarian government in Cuba. He dodges the Kefauver Committee. We also learn that the Kefauver Committee is just a front for a rival mobster. That’s how deep the corruption goes. He continues to subjugate his own family, attempting to control his grown, and widowed sister Connie’s choice of romantic partners, building a new compound at Lake Tahoe, and, finally, having his brother —who turns out to be a traitor — murdered. Michael Corleone has no interest in maintaining a benevolent, if top down and aristocratic social order like his father’s. He cares for only one thing, his dynasty, his image of himself in his children, in the absolute and eternal rule of the Corleone family. He fails, of course. He’s overthrown, not from the outside or by a revolution from below, but, like any oligarch, from within his own court. His wife Kay, morally outraged over her husband’s murderous career, aborts their unborn child — destroys the oligarch’s DNA — and walks out. The final scene of The Godfather II show Michael Corleone, triumphant over his enemies, but defeated, knowing he has failed to establish a lasting dynasty, that, like Richard III, he and his family, the Yorks, will be overthrown by the first available family of Tudors.

The Godfather III is, by a very wide critical consensus, not in the same league as The Godfather I or the Godfather II. But the reasons are quite revealing. The Godfather II ended in 1955. 25 years later, at the dawn of the Reagan era, neoliberalism is triumphant. Michael Corleone is wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. His daughter, like so many children of oligarchs, is appointed to run a “non-profit,” the Michael Corleone foundation. The Corleones are now so powerful, that, in addition to the humble immigrants and small businessmen of the fist two movies, their supplicants now include archbishops and real estate magnets. But, while history seems to have born out Coppola’s speculations about the assassination of Pope John Paul I, The Godfather III as a whole is just silly. While Coppola dramatized the birth of the neoliberal, oligarchic world order in the first two films, he doesn’t have the tools or the imagination to depict the ongoing neoliberal world order. Instead of finely wrought family drama, we have over the top, cartoonish violence, run away conspiracy theories, dialog that explains instead of dramatizes, and juxtapositions too obvious to convince.

The Godfather III is a mess, but, to its credit, at least it tries. Filmmakers, from Brian DePalma in Scarface to Scorsese in Goodfelllas, to Vince Gilligan in Breaking Bad, have been far more limited in their ambitions. There are good movies dramatizing street level criminals, bad movies dramatizing criminals as oligarchs, and TV shows like Breaking Bad that are combinations of both. What is Game of Thrones but the Godfather with the perversity and violence ratcheted up? But nobody has quite managed to make a film that, like The Godfather II, combines effective drama with the sweep of history and a subtle understand of American politics. Perhaps the very neoliberalism that triumphed in the 1970s has made that impossible.