The Prince of Darkness, an apt title for the man who helped define the cinematic style of 1970’s Hollywood.
Francis Ford Coppola
…because New Hollywood's most visionary filmmaker is more than just a wine label. An iconoclastic director who proved that dark, intelligent films could succeed, Francis Coppola symbolized the innovative cinema of the American New Wave. His classic films from the 1970’s used bold images, stark lighting and dramatic montages in their visual storytelling. While he may not have ultimately transformed the film industry itself – for reference, see the state of contemporary Hollywood – the impact of Coppola’s work is evident not just at the cutting edge of film and television, but in our culture at large.
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While Coppola may have been the inspiration for the character of Han Solo, his own films more often explore the dark side of humanity. Sure, one of his early breakthrough films may have been a musical about a leprechaun (seriously, it’s much better than you’d imagine) and he’s certainly capable of lighthearted fare like the nostalgic time travel rom-com "Peggy Sue Got Married" (though you can also make the case this film is an existentially bleaker companion to "Back to the Future"). However, for most of his career Coppola has told stories that involve crime, violence, paranoia, war and even vampires (twice!). In his most famous films from the New Hollywood period, Coppola also matched form to function, using dim lighting, smoke and shadows to help convey thematic darkness through literal imagery. While this description might make it sound like kind of a gimmick, Coppola’s decision to obscure the images in his shots as a way to enhance the storytelling remains a daring artistic statement even to this day. Whether filming the mafia in shadows, a surveillance operative in a foggy dream or soldiers in a psychedelic nightmare of swirling smoke, the meaning behind Coppola’s expression is, somewhat paradoxically, clear. By presenting these dark stories in such a striking way, Coppola entices the viewer to consider the roads that lead to such morally questionable areas. Famously, he may have done too good a job of this; after the positive reception of the Corleone family’s business in "The Godfather," Coppola felt compelled to show us just how ruthless that business actually was in "The Godfather Part II."
Today, we may think of Coppola as a wine mogul who occasionally makes films. Indeed, he did hand over American Zoetrope, the film production side of his family business, to his children. But really, this speaks to Coppola’s larger visionary qualities. In making "The Godfather," for example, he fought to cast the then relatively unknown Al Pacino instead of a bigger name like Robert Redford or Ryan O’Neal (he clearly made the right decision, ICYWW). He also knew the dark, baroque look that he wanted for the film, which is why he essentially begged cinematographer Gordon Willis to shoot the film, even after Willis initially turned down the offer. Coppola also founded American Zoetrope with George Lucas as a way to produce not only their own movies, but also sophisticated films that studios might overlook such as "The Black Stallion." Coppola rightly believed that he and his friends were revolutionizing contemporary cinema. Yet ultimately, his visionary tendencies may have taken him too far: for all its brilliance, the making of "Apocalypse Now" is a cautionary tale of success in cinematic realism. And like other New Hollywood pioneers, the corporate commercialization that swept through the film industry in the 1980’s didn’t perfectly mesh with his auteur theory. Despite the post-New Hollywood trends and the massive success of his “side” businesses, Coppola has continued to make films, admittedly with somewhat mixed results.
To this day, Coppola remains perhaps both the greatest and most enigmatic of American filmmakers. An avant-garde storyteller, he arguably created the blockbuster franchises that have more or less marginalized his later work. At the time it was being made, of course, "The Godfather" didn’t seem like a surefire success – it was a long, violent film featuring a washed up star leading a cast of unknowns. Not only did the movie become an award winning box office record breaker, it transformed into a cultural phenomenon, spawning two sequels, a video game and countless references and parodies. Of course, Coppola’s intention in making the film was to criticize the ruthlessness and influence of American capitalism by showing that crime in fact did pay. Similarly with "The Conversation," Coppola set out to explore the disappearance of privacy due to the rapid pace of technology. Yet in presenting a challenging story with an ominous social message, Coppola may have inadvertently created a new commercial genre: the modern techno-thriller. What’s more, Coppola and sound designer Walter Murch also relied on many of the technological advances in recording equipment they were critiquing in the film. Still, despite these apparent contradictions in Coppola’s work, his overall tendency to experiment with new techniques and storytelling modes have defined his career. Whether it’s the editing of "One From the Heart," black-and-white cinematography in "Rumble Fish" or Dracula’s new hairstyle in "Bram Stoker’s Dracula," Coppola has tried new, more radical ideas throughout most of his career. Even today, Coppola has tried to create a form of “live cinema” through his admittedly infrequent forays into filmmaking.
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