Monday, 7 November 2011

DVD Review : Three Films from American Zoetrope

John Milius probably sums it up best at the end of the 2004 documentary A Legacy of Filmmakers : The Early Years of American Zoetrope; looking back on the troubled dream of Francis Coppola’s experiment in autonomous production, he draws the conclusion that “We all may have done better work elsewhere, but our hearts were in the right place”. At the time of its inception, hot on the heels of the extraordinary commercial success of Easy Rider, and just as the old guards were beginning to change at the major studios (specifically Warners in this case), Coppola’s vision-made-flesh of a bohemian filmmaking commune in San Francisco, away from the interfering hands of the Studio bosses, must have seemed an ideological miracle to the new generation of filmmakers to whom admittance to the old boys’ club that was the film business was until then a series of closed doors.

Coppola, with typically bullish bravado and showmanship (not to mention a keen sense of timing), had managed to persuade Warners to fund his venture to the tune of $300,000, playing on their fears of being out-of-tune with the youth market and using his recent cross-country experiment in guerrilla filmmaking, The Rain People (1969) as proof that a viable artistic and moderate commercial success needn’t cost the earth. With seven projects theoretically green-lit, and Warners agreeing to give the thirty year old Coppola unprecedented creative control to oversee production, work began on USC wunderkind George Lucas’ debut feature THX 1138, a script that had been repeatedly turned down by the former Studio heads.

American Zoetrope began life as a veritable breeding ground of creativity, an artistic Xanadu with an open door policy for burgeoning filmmakers to make use of the state-of-the-art, European-modelled facilities, and for those first two years it must have seemed that anything was possible, especially with such a seemingly indulgent and nurturing figure as Coppola running the show. But almost as soon as the doors had opened, Warners slammed them shut. Coppola’s judgement was called into question on the strength of the first screening of Lucas’ completed feature, adding insult to injury when the now completed screenplays of the other six projects (which had formed the basis of the initial deal) were rejected outright, including John Milius’ script for Apocalypse Now. Warners demanded their money back and work ground to a halt, leaving the collective dream of a centre for self-governed creative freedom in tatters.

But the taste for being his own studio boss wasn’t one that Coppola was going to give up quite so easily, using the leverage provided by the phenomenal success of The Godfather films to move one of their rejected screenplays into production. Apocalypse Now was now co-funded by both United Artists and himself, the profits from which were used to fuel a Studio soon filled with the latest in digital and cinematic technologies, finally providing him with the autonomy (and the toys) he had waited over a decade for, and ultimately enough rope with which to hang himself, proving as equally adept at ploughing through his own money as he was everyone else’s.

Prestigious associations aside (Zoetrope part-funded the likes of Kurosawa’s Kagemusha and both Godard’s Sauve qui peut and Passion, as well as the epic restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon), Coppola’s initial post-Apocalypse slate included a couple of hopefully safe bets, the first of which being an adaptation of children’s favourite The Black Stallion to be directed by his UCLA and Finian’s Rainbow colleague, Carroll Ballard. The film’s reasonable budget (under $3m), box office and Oscar success (it received two nominations) paved the way for three subsequent projects all released in 1982 and released this week for the first time on DVD in the UK.

Perhaps it was the extended shoot for Apocalypse Now, famously beset with problems, which led Coppola to seek the controlled environment of the studio for these projects, but it’s ironic that a filmmaker who at the outset of his career determined to do things his own way, away from the studio system, should ultimately make his best work within those confines, and strive to recreate said environment once he’d achieved the long-fought-for autonomy and freedom that he craved. This was a long way from the European model upon which American Zoetrope was founded, a synthesised reality as artificial as anything that came out of Old Hollywood, and it was back there that these films looked; old fashioned, insular and reflexive works, perhaps the last big backlot pictures, but each of them movies about old movies, films that looked to the past whilst bringing to their productions (at great expense) the technology of the future.

First into production was an adaptation of Joe Gores’ novel Hammett, initially with Nic Roeg slated to direct. A troubled production from the outset (relations with the Hammett Estate proving especially problematic), the film’s eventual director Wim Wenders, who had impressed producer Fred Roos following a screening of The American Friend, had shot a location-based picture much more introverted and character-based than Coppola had expected, leading him to scrap huge swathes of footage, insisting on lengthy, protracted re-shoots. In its finished form, it’s a film that whilst still with much to admire, is clearly a victim of the splintered fragments of ideas that remain, none of which sufficiently followed through to make much more than a fleeting impact. Its half-baked idea of a writer disappearing into a world familiar from his fiction, a heightened reality that bleeds back into works that comment on said reality, was one realised much more fully a decade later by David Cronenberg with his adaptation of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (and less successfully by Steven Soderbergh with his film, Kafka).

Set in late ‘20s San Francisco, the story sees pulp crime writer Samuel Dashiell Hammett embroiled in a mystery seemingly straight out of one of his own stories. A tubercular, whiskey-swilling wiseguy, Hammett is called on to return a favour by his private eye pal Jimmy Ryan (Peter Boyle), who seemingly saved his life a while back, and who calls on him to head an investigation into a missing girl. Crooked officials, pornography and slavery rackets, and a trail that starts in Chinatown and leads right up to the source of the big money; Hammett is clearly indebted to the likes of Chinatown and The Big Sleep (not to mention John Huston’s adaptation of Hammett’s most famous novel, The Maltese Falcon). With it’s Double Indemnity voiceover, bluesy John Barry score and clever casting (Elisha Cook Jr, Royal Dano, Sam Fuller), all of the elements for successful pastiche are in place, and when taken on that level it works to a degree, the backlot (and Dean Tavoularis’ design) lending itself especially to its movie-specificity, but it’s all process with little of the romance, never transcending its checklist of the form. Much of the dialogue crackles suitably, but much like its contemporary Zoetrope productions, suffers from Coppola’s insistence on using his stock company in leading roles; Frederic Forrest struggling to carry a picture as much here (Wenders was hoping for Sam Shepard) as he would as a romantic lead in One From the Heart.

Of the three films, I found the most to like in Hammett, but it remains a frustrating experience. Rumours circulated (denied by Wenders) that Coppola had undertaken many of the reshoots himself, and whilst there’s consistency in the genre tone it seeks to replicate, it’s a bitty affair that struggles to find its groove. Scenes like the last, where Hammett sits at his typewriter, re-casting in his mind the characters from the adventure we’ve just seen into new roles and actions for his next story, are simply too few and far between, remaining little more than a tease of what could have been.

The problems faced by the production of Hammett were relatively minor compared to the folie de grandeur that was Coppola’s next, self-directed project, One From the Heart. Intended as a low-budget response to his experience making Apocalypse Now, its initial $3 million budget ultimately increased almost tenfold, both as a result of a set that would have made Jacques Tati blush and Coppola’s early adoption of expensive video-monitoring technologies that allowed him to view the action from the set nestled in the confines of a trailer kitted out with the latest high-end equipment, something documented in the special features present on the US DVD release but sadly absent here.

Two years in production, One From the Heart was a failure of epic proportions, barely recouping even one of its $27 million or so budget. It’s easy to see why the audiences stayed away, and easy to see that with his technical preoccupations at the forefront, Coppola seemed to overlook the fact that he didn’t have much of a story to tell. In some respects a musical (its forgettable soundtrack provided by Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle, each on different planets), its melancholic tone and romantic sense of artifice count for little when Coppola insists the audience engage with his direction rather than the characters on screen, a factor not aided by Frederic Forrest and Terri Garr’s drab performances. Pauline Kael slammed the film following its Radio City premiere, saying “eventually the audience realizes that there is nothing – literally nothing – happening except pretty images gliding into each other”, and she has something of a point, even if those images are often quite wonderfully conceived, utilising theatrical lighting and spatial techniques to avoid a cut wherever possible. I can’t say that I found much to like in One From the Heart, it’s just so far out there in its maniacal indulgences that I found little to grab onto (although I liked Harry Dean Stanton’s ridiculous perm), but at least Coppola commits wholeheartedly to his vision, however misguided that might ultimately be.

The final, and least controversial American Zoetrope release this week comes in the form of The Escape Artist, a forgettable slice of whimsy directed by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who had shot The Black Stallion for Carroll Ballard and would go on to lens The Right Stuff the following year (and The Passion of the Christ and Killer Joe more recently). Working from a script from Melissa Mathison (E.T.), Deschanel struggles to inject any sense of pace into this kid’s adventure yarn following Danny Masters, the son of a famous escape artist drawn into a fake money scandal by Raul Julia, the son of a corrupt mayor. Despite a promising opening in which Danny walks into the same police station from which his father died trying to escape, challenging them to lock him up so that he can escape within the hour, the film quickly gets lost in plodding flashback. A couple of nice touches aside, including some magic trick reveals and a sequence during the final escape where he sees an image of his dead father on the floor of a cell, walking over to it for it to levitate and disappear like a magic act, the relationships are insufficiently developed and the score by Georges Delerue proved especially grating.

If the man himself is to be believed, Coppola spent the remainder of the 80s and early 90s trying to pay off the debts incurred by the bankruptcy caused by One From the Heart. His position as one of the greatest American filmmakers can never be in doubt on the strength of The Conversation and The Godfather pictures alone, and its refreshing to see him keeping the spirit of truly independent filmmaking alive with the likes of Tetro and Twixt, regardless of their critical receptions. He’s never been a filmmaker to do things by halves, and one has to admire his spirit, even in the case of One From the Heart; if he’s going to make a disaster, at least it’s one of biblical proportions.

Hammett – 1982 – USA – 97 mins – Dir : Wim Wenders

One From the Heart – 1982 – USA – 107 mins – Dir : Francis Ford Coppola

The Escape Artist – 1982 – USA – 94 mins – Dir : Caleb Deschanel

All three films are available on DVD now.


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